While her neighbours' names ring out with authority in world football, Gambia could be seen as suffering from an inferiority complex. Tucked in among the likes of Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire in the buzzing hotbed of West Africa, Gambia's profile is quite a bit lower than those of its illustrious neighbours.
It seems, however, that the fortunes of the former British colony are about to change with a golden generation coming of age and going abroad.
Abdoulie Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, both 19, are examples of the Gambia's recent spike in respectability and export value. After impressing for the Baby Scorpions at last summer's FIFA U-20 finals in Canada, they are about to begin their first full season in the USA's top-flight with Boston-based New England Revolution.
"We heard about them before the U-20s and we decided to fly up and have a closer look; we liked what we saw," Revolution manager and former Liverpool star Steve Nicol told FIFA.com.
Nicol and his assistant - former England international Paul Mariner - caught the Gambian duo on the right day in their final group game against Portugal in Montreal. Nyassi, a sturdy central midfielder, put the shackles on the outstanding Bruno Gomes and Mansally, a pacey striker who can also play on the flank, scored stunning free-kick to seal a 2-1 win and Gambia's place in the knockout stages.
After being eliminated by Austria a few days later, Nyassi and Mansally headed to the Boston suburbs, booked a hotel room off the freeway and began training with the Revs, last year's US Open Cup winners and Major League Soccer runners-up two years running. Both were plucked early by the Gambian FA's widely heralded early development program and have played at FIFA World Cups at both U-17 (they beat Brazil at Peru 2005) and U-20 levels, so the draining journey to the US was no shock to the mature youngsters.
"They are both very strong players for their age," Nicol said. "We are hoping that they will be good additions to our team. Ideally we would like an immediate impact out of them, but there will be an adjustment period of course."
Nyassi signed his contract in August of last year and lined up for the Revs in their Open Cup semi-final win against the Carolina RailHawks. Mansally, who had to wait for work papers to clear, was restricted to one appearance at the end of the 2007 campaign. He made his intentions known this year, though, scoring a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly with the Bermuda national team. The performance already has fans and Boston media buzzing about the young Gambian forming one-half of a tantalising strike partnership with Revolution veteran and US international Taylor Twellman.
More Africans abroad
A former Scotland international, Nicol is known for building strong fighting units. He is also fully aware that African players are rare in MLS, with only 17 African-born players plying their trade in the league. However, he is sure his Gambians are going to bring something new to his side as they prepare for their 2008 season opener on 29 March against Houston Dynamo, the team that beat them in the championship decider last year.
"There aren't too many African players here in the States, but if you look around at the world's top leagues you can see how much influence African players are having on the way the game is played." Nicol said. "Look at every major team in Europe and I am pretty sure you'll find at least one African in the side."
The travels of Nyassi and Mansally are only the tip of the iceberg. There is presently an exciting exodus of youth talent coming out of the Gambia. Sensational striker Ousmane Jallow signed with Al Ain in UAE after a stint at Raja Casablanca. Tijan Jaiteh recently became the second Gambian player to line up for Norwegian champs SK Brann, who participated in this year's UEFA Cup. Abdou Ceesay and Ebrima Sohna also play in Norway while Paul Jatta went out on trials at English Championship side Southampton and Modou Jagne is in the Austrian top flight with SC Rheindorf Altach.
*South Africa dreams * With the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™ qualifying groups stages just around the corner in Africa, the new generation of Gambian footballers may have a say as the country aims to reach its first-ever world finals at senior level. Nyassi, Mansally and Jallow are likely to be called into the senior side, and are expected to play a part in the upcoming campaign.
Drawn into a manageable Group 6 alongside struggling powers Senegal, Algeria and Liberia, the stage is set for Gambia to put its name on a par with her better-known neighbours.