Gambia aim for more glory

Mention the word Peru and the date 17 September 2005 to any Gambian football fan and their eyes are sure to light up. It was on that memorable Saturday evening that the nation's U-17 side made African football history. It was the first time a Gambian national team had taken part in a FIFA world championship - and the U-17 finals were to mark the country's great entrance on the world football stage.

Nobody gave the novices much of a chance, especially when the first game saw them pitched in at the deep end against reigning world champions Brazil. But the Gambians upset the form books, pulling off a sensational 3-1 win that made the football world stand up and take notice.

Two years on and Gambians still like talking about that day, even if it didn't lead to ultimate victory in the tournament. There was no limit to the euphoria at the time - both in Peru and back home in Gambia, as Joseph Gomez recalls in an interview with "It was completely crazy. It seemed like the whole country was out on the streets celebrating." The goalkeeper wasn't in the U-17 squad back then, but he remembers watching and celebrating his countrymen's great performance on television. "I was in Gambia at the time and it was a fantastic experience. The lads really made our people happy. People went wild all over the country. And we can do the same for them again in Canada - God willing."

And so we turn to Toronto in July 2007. The starting point is similar to 2005. When the FIFA U-20 World Cup kicks off in Canada, nobody is tipping the Gambians to top a group that includes a strong Mexican side, the ball-playing Portuguese and the side from New Zealand. "The Mexicans are unbelievably good on the ball and very quick," Gomez explains before drawing a comparison with the Gambian side: "We are good on the ball too, but we're not that fast".

Gomez doesn't talk up his team's chances. If anything, he is a little shy and reticent and has a touch of scepticism in his eyes. The keeper is only 19, but he has already learned that actions speak louder than words on a football pitch. The modest Gambian stands at 6 feet 3 inches and has already reached great heights in the game. He was voted best keeper in the U-20 African Nations Cup - which was the qualifying tournament for Canada. He is proud of the achievement, but also sees it as spurring him on to reach still greater heights in Canada. "Of course I was proud to get that award," he says. "We acquitted ourselves well in the African Cup but we want to do even better here".

Making a fist of it
You only have to watch the Gambians put themselves through their daily training programme at Toronto's National Soccer Stadium to see that Gomez is doing much more than paying lip service to his country's intentions. The Gambians look focused and well-organised as they take to the artificial pitch to prepare themselves for the first big test. They move the ball around with confidence and speed and as the session draws to a close, team coach Peter Johnson works on ball skills, the finer points of team tactics and motivation.

Eleven players from the successful side in Peru 2005 have survived to make the trip to Canada. The biggest name among them is Gambia's top striker Ousmane Jallow, who scored the crucial third goal in that 3-1 win over Brazil. Gambia's dreams are resting on the 18-year-old's young shoulders. Top scorer in the U-20 African Cup, he is expected to get the goals to take his side through to the final stages in Canada.

"Jallow's obviously a key player for us up front," says coach Johnson. But he adds with a laugh, "All my players know where the net is." Joking aside, it is clear he believes in his players: "The lads have been playing together for over four years now and they know each other inside out." Johnson thinks this could be the key to the West Africans' chances in the tournament. "After all these years together, they're like brothers", he says. "They know what their team mates are going to do before they know it themselves."

The Gambians take to the field on Monday hoping to show the top footballing nations what they can do once again. "We respect every opponent, but fear none," says coach Johnson. "We're certainly not here as tourists." It could just be that 2 July 2007 goes down as another great day in the annals of Gambian football history.