The Independent (Banjul)

3 January 2003

Gambian Football in 2002 - The Year That Was


Banjul — Five years ago, our football had only one target: emerge Zone Two winners. Sadly, our boys stumbled on the last route to the final, failing to overcome a staunch Malian side. That loss had a damp impact on the country's soccer life and crowd support for the scorpions waned shortly later with home succumbing to Morocco in a World Cup qualifier and a sharing of the spoils with Guinea Conakry in a Nations Cup preliminaries. In a sudden, pleasant volteface, Gambian football slapped on a-can't-avoid-to-notice me tag in the mould of the previous U-17, two years ago. These rookies left nauseating tastes in the mouths of many opponents. The 3-0 marauding of Mali and the daring draw with Ghana in Kumasi springs to mind. As fate could have it, the Assan Nyang-skippered lot missed out on a CAF U-17 ticket when they crumbled from twelve yards on home soil to Burkina Faso. The exasperatingly and utterly unreliable manner of the sub regional football body, WAFU, meant the boys never had the opportunity to stand tall in international tournaments. Had it been so, players in their prime like Bierhoff, Assan Nyang, Demba Jagne could have beefened up the swelling number of Gambians playing big time football.

The past year had seen Gambian football doing its utmost to emerge from the shadows and take its place up there. Ours has for long been a football backwater nation, one any team can down with hardly breaking a sweat. Well, 2002, it must be said, could be remembered as the year that Gambian football shook itself free of the 'whipping boys' label.

Whether it was due to the blinding display of the Lions of Senegal, -who made it to the final of the Nations Cup and went further to have a smashing Far East adventure, edging off France on their way to the quarterfinals-but Gambian football simply refused to be mentioned in the same breathe as before. It was bound to be our year [well, in our own way at least] when regional power houses, Sierra Leone and Guinea Conakry came to town for test matches and left the way they came- bare-handed, thanks to lone goal victories. Thus, it was obvious that the Scorpions left these shores in high spirits for the WAFU Cup in now rebel-ridden Ivory Coast. However, that enthusiasm was binned when grappling with the host nation, who fielded foreign players, The Gambia did something it had not done for as long as I can remember- have her goalie beaten four times before the break! The game plan was changed after half time but the damage was done. Five minutes from time, Ivory Coast got a fifth goal and that was that. 'They were simply better than us in every department' hitman, Bai Omar Samba, told me. 'It got worst for us because we paraded no professionals.'

Sadly, uprising erupted in Bouake, the very place where the tournament was staged and that put paid to it. It was of immense relief when the squad was airlifted from an Ivory Coast in turmoil and landed at Banjul International Airport, after a week of being trapped in their hotel.

Despite the GFA appealing to CAF that the time scheduled for the CAN qualifier was too tight, the continental soccer body held its own and the match rolled off. Lesotho's Crocodiles swam in; open jawed, optimistic of dragging something back home. Our Southern African opponents were not a side to be taken for granted. Fine, they lost at home to Senegal but our neighbours had to sweat-drenched themselves for those valuable points, with midfield icon, Khalilou Fadiga, getting his marching orders. To aggravate things, we knew next to nothing about the Crocodiles whilst they have had a taste of football similar to our own.

We needn't have fretted. A Scorpions side made up of a good number of foreign players stung their opponents for dead, hitting them for six, with the young Djurgarden marksman, Azizz Corr-Nyang, notching a brace on his debut. A nation was caught in frenzy. 'Bring on Senegal!' the fans chanted. Yes, Sunday 13th October was a day of records. The Scorpions fielded the largest of foreign players ever [six] the score line was the largest haul-in the boys have managed in a CAN qualifier, or, to be precise, against any national team. Football apostles will recall that the Scorpions put nine past English club Islington Villa.

With the Senegal clash two light months away, fans are ready to bet their money that El Hajj Diouf and co. will surely transport no points from Banjul. History, though, tilts in favour of the Lions, who have had the last laugh over us for the past forty-three years. However, with Gambian football yearning to arrive, the jinx might be shattered. The past year had been one that saw Gambian professionals surfacing in all corners of Europe. The sports pages of newspapers are rife with Gambian footballers being discovered on a rapid basis. Roughly, over twenty players are abroad. However, these players should be called over and recommend those who are squad-worthy for the March date. With the GFA being a body that cannot monily jump around, as it would like to, government should step in and facilitate the arrival of these professionals. There should be no room for pifflery as we prepare for our biggest football meeting ever. With a five-goal cushion better off than Senegal, a win [how I long for one!] by perhaps a single goal would draw Tunisia 2004 closer. After placing a good footing, it would be outrageous to lacklustrely prepare and then slip up.

2002 would have been shelved on an all football high had the new U 17 formation repeated history and snuff Mali. Rather, a lone goal did them in and the chances of overturning that in Bamako are not so fanciful.

Still, football is a game that is not over until it is over. Remember an Alhagie Sillah-gaffered U20 side that lost at home to Senegal [yes, Senegal!] and scrapped out a win in Dakar to go through? Anything can happen.

On the domestic scene, Wallidan reduced all clubs to spectators when it made away with everything at stake, including the new President's Trophy. In doing so, the Blue Boys successfully defended the doubles it lifted a season ago. However, their Champions League hopes were earthed when they lost over two legs to Moroccan side, Raja Casablanca.

'Nil sati nisi optimum' a Latin saying goes [Always look to the bright side of life] and Wallidan are doing just that, beefing up their squad as they prepare to tackle Dragons of Benin. All the best, Blue Boys!

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