Gambia have emerged as one of the new powerhouses of junior football in Africa, qualifying now for their third FIFA finals. It is a remarkable achievement for the small west African nation, whose senior side and club teams have barely made any impression on the African landscape. It will be the second time in the last three tournaments that a Gambian side has participated at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. They were at the 2005 event in Peru in what was a massive breakthrough for Gambian football and a significant event in the footballing history of the nation. Two years later, the Gambian U-20 side qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, astounding pundits by making it past the first round.
Gambia go to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria as the reigning African champions, one of five teams from the continent at the event. Admittedly, the hosts did not participate at the CAF U-17 Championships in Algeria in March but that does not take away from the achievement of the Baby Scorpions. They certainly had a sting in their tail as they sailed through the preliminaries and set the championships in Dar El Beida and Zeralda alive. En route to the continental tournament, Gambia's victims included Ghana, perennial challengers for honours at U-17 level, who they narrowly defeated on the away goals rule in the final preliminary round.
In Group B, Gambia won all three of their opening round games without conceding a goal and had qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup by the time they reached the semi-finals. But they were not finished yet and scored a 4-0 win over Malawi to book a meeting with the hosts in the final. Gambia had already beaten Algeria 2-0 in the group stage and emphasised their superiority with a 3-1 triumph in the final, including two goals from Ebrima Bojang, taking his tournament tally to five in as many matches.
Thousands of people lined up to greet the team back in the country after their success, including the Gambian president and senior ministers, acknowledgement of what a massive achievement it was for sport in the country.
Gambia are planning a tour of England in early September to ensure they will be properly prepared for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The Gambia FA seek to follow the pattern established in 2005 before their first appearance at a FIFA tournament when their U-17 side then also toured the British isles and warmed up with some quality practice matches against tough opposition before heading to Peru.
Coach Tariq Saigy has also been handed the option of adding to the squad that won the African championship, as there are several new possible contenders that have been unearthed among the Gambian Diaspora in Europe. He will make a final decision after running his eye over the potential candidates in friendly matches against the likes of Nigeria and Senegal in the coming weeks.
Facts and figures
Ebrima Bojang (forward)
The numbers game
1 - the number of goals Gambia conceded in their five matches at the CAF U-17 Championship in Algeria.
|2||Lamin Sarjo SAMATEH|