Gambia will make their FIFA U-20 World Cup debut in Canada this summer after confounding predictions to comfortably secure qualification at the 15th CAF African Youth Championship in Congo. Only beaten 1-0 in the semi-finals by reigning champions Nigeria, the Baby Scorpions have every right to look back on their competition with pride. That said, disappointment was the prevailing emotion on the final whistle at Brazzaville stadium, as victory had earlier appeared to be within the Gambians' reach. Ultimately, however, they lacked the killer instinct and succumbed to a Nigerian side that, in contrast, were able to make one of their few opportunities count.
Once the sadness had passed, Gambia began to realise just what they had achieved: qualification for the world's premier competition in their category. This proved sufficient to pep up the morale of these young Scorpions in time for the third-place play-off against Zambia, where a 3-1 win earned them the bronze medal and hinted at a successful foray to come on Canadian territory.
And although their dream of becoming African champions did not come to pass on this occasion, the Baby Scorpions can be justifiably proud of their showing in Congo. Certainly if they can reproduce the same fighting spirit, application, solidity and effectiveness in Canada, they will be worthy representatives of their continent.
Gambia made a roaring start in the African qualifying competition for Canada 2007. Drawn into Group A with the Congolese hosts, the Baby Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire and the Burkina Faso Colts, the Baby Scorpions were few people's favourites for qualification. But the young hopefuls proved too good for their group rivals, finishing top of the section by a clear margin.
The first success came against Burkina Faso on matchday one at the Massemba Debat stadium, where the Baby Scorpions stung their opponents with second-half strikes from Ousmane Jallow and Abdoulie Mansaly to make a dream start to the competition.
Their next game brought a much sterner test in the shape of hosts Congo. Cheered on by the home fans, the Little Red Devils pushed the Scorpions all the way in what was a finely balanced encounter, and it was not until added time (90+4) that Gambia seized victory courtesy of a Conateh Pa Landing strike.
Already guaranteed a place in the semi-finals and a subsequent FIFA U-20 World Cup spot, Gambia went into their next game against Côte d'Ivoire with a relaxed air and a much-changed line-up. But the Baby Elephants still could not manage to get the ball past Joseph Gomez in the Gambian goal. The Scorpions, on the other hand, found the back of the net again thanks to Abdoulie Mansaly's 83rd-minute effort, making it three wins out of three at the group stage.
But the Gambian adventure was to come to an abrupt halt in the
semi-finals. Against a Flying Eagles side that had endured a far
from smooth route through the tournament, Gambia found that their
high-energy pressing game and defensive solidity were not enough to
protect them from the athletic prowess of the Nigerians (1-0).
Despite this slip-up, the youngsters picked themselves up again to
brush aside Zambia (3-1) and clinch the bronze.
Peter Bonu Johnson is one of the most-respected coaches in Gambia. A former international star in the 1980's, he was a key member of the hugely successful Flamemins Football Club. After suffering an eye injury in 1994, Johnson was forced to call time on his playing career and soon began to turn his attentions toward coaching. He made his first steps on the other side of the touchline at Flamemins before becoming assistant to Swiss boss Hans Heneger - coach of the Gambian junior national team, and later the seniors. Johnson then took over assisting Franck Osam Duodu with the U-17 national team that went on to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005. He was then named Duodo's successor and national U-20 boss. According to all who know the man, he will be keen on success for Gambia in Canada this summer.
Having netted three of his side's seven goals at the 2007 African Youth Championship, Ousmane Jallow finished the tournament as top scorer. Blessed with power and a generally good first touch in front of goal, the young Ousmane made up for the absence of Momodou Ceasay, Gambia's other promising attacker. While Johnson's side is based primarily on the strength of the team as a whole, the emergence of a new goalscorer can only be an added advantage for the young Scorpions.
What they said...
"We are going to respect every opponent and give good account of ourselves in Canada on the back of very strong preparations. We will give respect to our opposition, but at the same time we will not be overawed." Peter Bonu Johnson, coach of the Gambia U-20 side.
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