Gambia is known locally as "The Smiling Coast of Africa" and their Under-20 team have certainly brought a lot of joy to the nation after reaching the Round of 16 at Canada 2007.
The same was true two years ago when the nucleus of this same squad took part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru, though Gambia have mixed memories of the tournament. First they stunned Brazil by winning 3-1 in their opening match before beating Qatar by the same score in Piura. So many fans made the trip over they turned the Miguel Grau Stadium into an African carnival.
The journey south to the Peruvian capital Lima for the final group match against the Netherlands was a very different story, however. Although Gambia needed only a draw or a single-goal defeat against the Dutch, they lost 2-0 and star striker Momodou Ceesay missed a late penalty that would have spared them. As it was, they had to go back to Africa despite picking up six group points, though the lessons they got in that bitter defeat have served them well here in Canada. Naturally, the players and staff are keen to keep the ball rolling when they face Austria in the second round in Edmonton on Wednesday.
Ebrima Sohna was one of four players sent off in the Brazil match as the teams finished that now-famous encounter with nine men apiece and he missed the crucial decider against the Netherlands as he was still serving a suspension. The 18-year-old will never forget his frustration as he sat and watched his dreams of playing in the second round fade before his eyes. "What happened in Peru sucked and we don't want that mistake to happen again," the midfielder told FIFA.com. "Not playing was hard for me, thinking about what I could do for the team.
"I think we will go through from here and we will use our experience from Peru. We will be playing for our whole nation against Austria and we had to show the people that the U-17 tournament was an error and that we can do it. We will not repeat 2005 again," he insisted.
The memories are not all painful for Sohna and his face broke into a broad grin when he thought back to the triumph over Brazil, despite his red card. "Before the game everyone was saying Brazil would beat us 9-1 or 10-1, something like that, but we were confident and we coped with them." Ousman Jallow is another veteran of that campaign and he said: "The Portugal victory in our last group game here was very important for us. In Peru, we messed things up for ourselves when we lost 2-0 against Holland. Of course it was very disappointing."
"Beating Brazil was an amazing experience but the Holland game was bad for us. Football is like that and it is the same in life. It is good to have mistakes sometimes so you can learn from it. We took it all in good faith. We are not nervous about the Austria game because we are excited. Being in the second round is history for Gambian football," the striker said.
Gambia coach Peter Bonu Johnson was not in Peru two years ago as he was busy preparing Gambia's U-20 team for a tournament in Côte d'Ivoire but has used the episode to help the team to good effect at Canada 2007. "That was our first experience in such a high level of football and winning against a country like Brazil really lifted the players. In the end, the pressure got to them and we learnt a lot of lessons from that," he told FIFA.com.
"That was the second time it had happened to the under-17 team because in the African Cup of Nations we had to beat Cameroon to go to the next stage and did not manage it, so it was all part of their learning process," he explained.
"Most of the Peru team are here," he continued. "But, the players are happy and ready to go all the way because it's an opportunity for them to go and make a mark for themselves to get other professional clubs to come in for them. This the avenue. If you look at football nowadays, all the big players make their names at the U-20 World Cup and my team realises that."