As Gambia gear up for a crucial decider against Portugal which could see them progress to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, the nonchalant air about their camp belies their make-or-break predicament. This typically African approach is demonstrated by gifted midfielder Tijan Jaiteh, who says, "We're really relaxed and ready to enjoy the match."
Despite getting his first taste of football in a major international tournament, the team's star striker Ousmane Jallow seems no less laid-back than his fellow team-mates. "We're well prepared to take on Portugal," he says with cool-headed determination. "They're a great team and we have a lot of respect for them. We'll let them come at us and will do our utmost to outclass them on the break."
Within a few minutes it becomes clear that this close-knit bunch has a special quality, one which no doubt lies in its roots. The seeds of the group were sown in the run-up to the 2005 CAF U-17 Championship in Gambia, when the Gambian FA launched the "Get them young" project. Its aim was to prepare for the tournament by recruiting talented 12- and 13-year-olds in the country's schools. Thanks to the FIFA Goal Project, youth team facilities were also installed in the capital, Banjul.
The strategy reaped spectacular results. The Baby Scorpions clinched the CAF U-17 title in 2005 and qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Championship held in Peru later that year. They went on to cause a stir in South America by overpowering eventual runners-up Brazil, despite failing to qualify for the second round by the narrowest of margins. That crop of youngsters have gone on to form the nucleus of the U-20 squad bidding for glory in Canada. "We work our socks off and are a really close-knit bunch, like brothers in fact. We've played as a family for over four years now and know each other inside and out. We're also friends off the pitch, too. Things like that really make the difference when we're up against it," says Tijan.
One thing is sure, the squad enjoys the kind of cohesiveness which is rarely found in other teams, despite the diverse ethnic, religious and even linguistic origins of its members. This 'come one, come all' philosophy was summed up by the team's goal celebration in the match against New Zealand, when they united in an Islamic-style prayer while dancing a traditional Gambian jig. In a team with no concept of barriers, everyone is able to put aside their differences and strive for the common good.
Living the dream
The Africans' sensational showing at Peru 2005 has since transformed the lives of Ousman and Tijan. Along with Ebrima Sohna, they make up the lucky trio of players who have secured contracts with foreign clubs, the dream of every youngster in the squad. "After Peru 2005, I signed for Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates. From there, I went on to Raja Casablanca, where I've played for a year. Of course, my ambition is to play in Europe one day and, if I had the choice, I'd go to Arsenal without hesitation!" grins Ousman with a tell-tale twinkle in his eye. Meanwhile midfielder Tijan, a fan of ex-Arsenal maestro Patrick Vieira, headed to colder climes in Brann, Norway. "Of course it's chilly there but I've acclimatised well," he says over the muffled laughter of team-mate Ousman.
The two youngsters are living a dream which every member of their squad is eager to savour. Nevertheless, they appreciate their good fortune and spare a thought for their brothers back home. "Obviously our experience abroad is a big plus. We try to pass on what we've learnt in our clubs, and I think that the rest of the team can learn from us. We also have a certain responsibility because we know that if the team performs well in Canada, other players might also get opportunities to play abroad," comments Ousman.
Much could depend on whether Gambia get a good result against Portugal, where a draw might not be enough to see them through. "We'll stick to the game-plan that our coach has worked out for us. In the second half against Mexico, we lost our concentration, especially after they scored the first goal. We'll make sure there's no repeat performance this time around," insists Ousman. If they play their cards right, a place in the Round of 16 beckons. "It doesn't matter who we meet, we'll give any team a run for their money," agree Tijan and Ousman, showing the enthusiasm and togetherness which might yet see the Baby Scorpions deliver an almighty sting.