Even those who represent one of the smallest countries in Africa are entitled to believe in their own abilities. Just take Gambia, a nation with just over 1.4 million inhabitants and a surface area of 11,300 km², but whose U-20 side proved during the CAF African Youth Championship Congo 2007 that anything is still possible.
Making its debut at the tournament, this small west African state - which had already achieved the formidable task of overpowering Morocco and Mali on its way to the finals - clinched the bronze medal with a 3-1 win over Zambia in the match for third place. No mean feat for a footballing nation which rarely makes the headlines in the international press.
The awarding of another title, this time an individual one, only served to emphasise the team's wealth of talent. Joseph Gomez, goalkeeper of the Baby Scorpions, was named player of the tournament in his position. His outstanding performances attracted the attention of scouts from around the world. Already since the competition finished, the young stopper has completed several trials with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, AS Roma and Bologna.
Gambia's U-20 players are progressing in leaps with players
such as Jallow Ousman, Mansally Abdouli, Sohna Ebrima and Leigh
Sarja making up the backbone of the squad, just as they did in 2005
when the Baby Scorpions brilliantly claimed the CAF African U-17
Championship on home soil in 2005. This historic victory earned
Gambia the right to contest the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2005 held later
that year where they surprised many observers. After two wins in
the group phase, including one against eventual finalists Brazil,
the Africans saw their dreams dashed by an inferior goal difference
(+2 compared to +3 for the Netherlands). This experience gained two
years ago will undoubtedly prove valuable during Canada 2007.
Johnson Bonu, talent spotter supreme
The Gambia U-20 squad, which is as gifted technically as it is tactically, is coached by Johnson Bonu. A former international defender with 38 caps to his name, he masterminded the discovery of a number of talented players, including current captain Jatto Cessay.
The new recruits have strengthened the solid base formed around the U-17 team of 2005. After hanging up his boots, Johnson Bonu decided to turn his attention towards coaching. Upon returning from Budapest in 1995, where he graduated with a second class degree, he was offered the position of assistant to Hans Hennegar, head of the senior national team. He then got his first taste of top-level coaching as second-in-command to Fred Osam Duodu during qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005. He followed up this experience by taking sole charge of the U-20 side.
To provide the best preparation for Canada 2007, Gambia accepted an invitation to participate in the Suwon International Youth Festival in Korea Republic. This tournament, which was held on 23-27 March, is a biennial event which brings together four teams, each representing different continents and each having qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. This unique group enables the four teams to face each other in a championship-style contest. In this year's get-together, the Africans were pitted against the host country, Poland and Chile.
Deprived of key players - including Jallow, Mansally, Liegh and Sohna - who were retained by their respective clubs, injured or undergoing trials abroad, the Baby Scorpions finished the tournament in last position. Despite having travelled to Asia in confident mood, Bonu's protégés succumbed to three defeats in as many matches, due in part to some poor first-half displays. Nevertheless, the matches gave the players a taste of things to come in Canada.
'We don't approach any match lightly'
Back on African soil, the side were given the chance to test themselves against an African team competing at a whole different level. Playing away to the Côte d'Ivoire U-23 team, the Congo 2005 bronze medallists put in a courageous effort.
Despite being at a major disadvantage with his best players absent, Johnson Bonu was able to improvise by drafting in six new recruits. Although no miracle was forthcoming, the eventual 2-1 defeat was an honourable scoreline. Some weeks later, against a selection of players from the state of Brikama in western Gambia, the decline was finally halted. A decisive 4-1 victory boosted the morale of the Gambia side with the U-20 World Cup just around the corner.
During this summer's event, the Baby Scorpions will have their work cut out in Group C where they will face Portugal, Mexico and New Zealand. The first two teams would seem to be the logical favourites. Portugal, title winners in 1989 and 1991, return after a seven-year absence, while Mexico were crowned champions at the U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005. This is the same generation of Tricolores, led by star striker Giovani Dos Santos, who will be going for glory in Canada.
The Gambians still have a little more time to iron out the creases before this summer's action. From now until July, Johnson Bonu will have the benefit of a full squad to pick from. Further matches are being lined up by the Gambian Football Association. Two home matches are already scheduled, while the coach is hoping to play four matches on European territory. Costa Rica, who qualified for Canada 2007, are also expected to agree to a friendly match.
Although preparations have been far from smooth, the coach is in no mood to panic. On the contrary, he is single-mindedly focused on the task ahead: "We are taking each game as it comes and we don't approach any match lightly."