Mixed-up Gambia better for it
© Foto-net

When Gambia boss Peter Bonu Johnson made the walk down the tunnel to the locker room after seeing his side soundly beaten 3-0 by a smashing Mexican outfit, he expected a scene of what would have been understandable dejection. What he found, however, was a most pleasant surprise.

"I couldn't believe it," he told FIFA.com. "My players were all buzzing around the changing room, encouraging each other, pumping each other up. It didn't look like a team that had just lost a football match, but rather one that was ready to fix their mistakes and make sure to win their next two."

It's no surprise really that the Gambia boys were in semi-high spirits after their opening game in Toronto on Monday. Even Jesus Ramirez, Mexico's coach, and scorer and Barcelona starlet Giovanni dos Santos admitted the Gambians were far-and-away the better team in the first half and unlucky not to find a way past the outstanding Alfonso Blanco in the Mexico net. If shots on goal tell a story, the colourful Africans had the edge six to one at the break.

Three second-half goals broke their backs though. The scoreline, in truth, flattered the Mexicans and was harsh on the Africans who gave as good as they got in the most open game of the finals up to that point.

Perhaps this is the reason for such an up-beat response after the match. After all, like the Mexicans, this Gambia team has been together for over five years and with the likes of Ousmane Jallow and Modou Jagne playing brilliantly, they are looking good for a place in the knockout stages. Or maybe there is something else at play...

The most important element in this particular team if you ask coach and players is the spirit, the blending of styles and almost unspoken sense of communication and understanding in the side from the smallest country on the African mainland.

A Gambian melting pot
"Gambia is a nation of blending and understanding," Bonu Johnson told FIFA.com. "We have many languages and musical styles and at home you have an unusual sense of tolerance between Christians and Muslims and people of all kinds."

Though English is the official language of Gambia, the country has no less than 14 recognised tribal languages, all of which jumble together in a sort of Creole when the team trains and plays. English words - a carry-over from the days of Anglo imperialism - mixes with local tribal phrasing but somehow the players all understand each other and react to cues without missing a beat.

Religion, too, is a thing of blending in the team, as Bonu Johnson, part of a ten-percent Christian minority in the West African country is quick to point out. "In Gambia, religion and music play a large part in our culture. We have Christians and Muslims, with Muslims in the vast majority. I am a Christian and a good number of my players are Muslim. But in the team, as it is in our country, there is no conflict or friction. We are at peace and we blend together."

Raja Casablanca striker Jallow - who scored his first hat trick for his club this year and picked up top scorer honours at African qualifiers - is Muslim and may well hold the team's hopes of a place in the second round. "If Allah wills it, we will make a glorious mark here in Canada," he says. "We know each other like brothers after all the years playing together. We know what our team-mates are going to do before they do it."

The mixture, part religious, linguistic, musical and sporting, is set. Now, the Gambians will be hoping their special brew is enough to see them through.