The 29th edition of the Orange African Cup of Nation's is underway in the rainbow nation of South African with 16 of the continent's best sides all battling it out for the gold trophy.
The tournament is the third most famous national team competition in the world behind only the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Championship and it is not an exception in the football loving country of The Gambia.
The Gambian fans will again be glued to their television screens daily as the football fever hits town but as usual, they will be rooting for nations likes the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Morocco amongst others without their dear Scorpions not making it into the championship.
The competition is sanctioned by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and was first held in 1957. Since 1968, it has been held every two years. The title holders at the time of a FIFA Confederations Cup qualify for that competition. In 1957 there were only three participating nations: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. South Africa were originally scheduled to compete, but were disqualified due to the apartheid policies of the government then in power.
Since then, the tournament has grown greatly, making it necessary to hold a qualifying tournament. The number of participants in the final tournament reached 16 in 1998 (16 teams were to compete in 1996 but Nigeria withdrew, reducing the field to 15), and since then, the format has been unchanged, with the sixteen teams being drawn into four groups of four teams each, with the top two teams of each group advancing to a "knock-out" stage.
The decision to increase the competing teams in the finals to 16 teams amongst others is to give the lesser nations an equal opportunity to qualify and that has been vindicated with unknown teams now becoming permanent fixtures in the competition in the past couple of seasons. If you look at the composition of the qualified teams to this year's edition in South Africa, you begin to wonder, why can't The Gambia still qualify?
Ethiopia credited as one of the founding three members of the competition won the championship in 1962 while it was also the host; however, success has been elusive since the end of the 1960s. They have finally made a return to the fold for the first in three decades with Niger making only their second ever appearance and Cape Verde making its debut this year.
The Democratic Republic Congo were winners of the competition in 1968 and 1974 but after winning their last title in 74' and participating in the 1974 FIFA World Cup, the team did not get past the first round of the 1976 African Cup of Nations not recording a win in the group stages. From 1978 to 1986, the country did not qualify for any other African Cup of Nations, while withdrawing from qualification for the 1978 FIFA World Cup.
In the 1988 African Cup of Nations Zaire finished last in their group despite having 2 draws. It has continues in its struggles until they finally make a return this year under Coach Claude le Roy who is in his second spell in charge. Namibia also made two appearances in the competition proper and their last participation was just five years ago when they were knocked out of the group stages in the 2008 edition in Ghana.
Gambia's first international games
According to information gathered from wikipedia, under the name British Gambia, the team played their first ever game on 5 December 1962, beating neighbouring Senegal 3-2 at home in a friendly. In April 1963 the team entered the L'Amitié tournament in Senegal, a competition mainly for French-speaking nations. They were drawn in a group with France's amateur team, the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Gabon. Their first match was lost 5-1 to the French amateurs on 11 April. The Gambia drew 2-2 with the Upper Volta on 13 April, and had the same result the very next day versus Gabon. The Gambia did not advance to the next round.
After the tournament in Senegal, the Gambia did not play another match until 16 November 1968, when they travelled to Sierra Leone to play its team in a friendly and lost 2-1. They played again in Sierra Leone in the Gambia's next match on 24 April 1971 and the hosts won 3-1. On 2 May 1971, The Gambia travelled to Guinea for a friendly and lost 4-2. On 14 May 1972 the Gambia returned to Guinea for their first African Games qualifier and lost 8-0 and were knocked out.
In 1975 the Gambia entered its first qualification campaign for the football at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Canada. They were drawn in a qualifier against Guinea, and lost the first leg 1-0 at home on 27 April 1975. The second leg was lost 6-0 in Guinea on 1 June as Guinea advanced 7-0 on aggregate.
First appearance at Nations Cup qualifiers
Still with information gathered on wikipedia, in August 1975, the Gambia entered their first qualification for the African Cup of Nations, with the aim of reaching the 1976 finals in Ethiopia. They were drawn in a two-legged qualifier against Morocco and lost the first leg 3-0 away on 10 August. They lost by the same score in their home leg on 24 August and Morocco advanced 6-0 on aggregate. After the qualification campaign for the 1976 finals, the Gambia played their first match against a full European side, losing a home friendly 4-1 to Denmark on 30 January 1977.
Recently, The Gambia came close to securing qualification in the Nation's Cup on two separate occasions but missed out and it was hoped that it will build on that strong campaigns for the 2010 and 2012 editions respectively under Belgian coach Paul Put which it also secured its highest ever FIFA World Ranking to 65 in June of 2009.
Recent rivalries with present AFCON qualifiers
The democratic republic of Congo in 2011 came to The Gambia to play a friendly international played on Wednesday 10th August at the Independence Stadium in Bakau. In that game, the Scorpions sent a strong signal to the continent with a confidence-boosting 3-0 demolition of the Elephants of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) under Belgian Paul Put.
In that faithful game, a thunderbolt from then Denmark-based Tijan Jaiteh and Finland-based Demba Savage gave Paul Put's charges a commanding first half 2-0 lead before a penalty from lanky forward Momodou Ceesay ensured victory in front of a half-full Independence Stadium -largely due to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. This prompted the former President of the GFA Seedy Kinteh to claim that his country will qualify for the 2012 edition and yes we missed out but only just following a final day defeat to Namibia.
Even that team that annihilated the DRC was a depleted side following late withdrawals of players due to travel arrangements and injuries. When you look at that team that started in that fateful game, Mamadou Futty Danso and Pa Dembo Touray are now considering their international futures with Dawda Bah yet to play a single competitive game for over one year and Mustapha Toubabo Jarju also struggling with Belgian side RAEC Mons.
DR Congo has since recovered from that shocking defeat to qualify to the 2013 AFCON in South Africa with Gambia exiting at the first hurdle after a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Algeria over two legs. Algeria was also a side that played two previous games in Banjul prior to that qualifier and on both occasions were beaten and outscored 3-1 with their two wins over The Gambia both secured under controversial circumstances in the North African country.
As recently as 2007 in the qualifiers to the 2008 AFCON in Ghana, The Gambia was paired with Algeria and Cape Verde in the same group. The Scorpions opened their campaign with a dominating 2-0 defeat of the Islanders in Banjul with Assan Jatta amongst the scorers. They also secured a 2-1 win over Algeria in Banjul and lost in Algiers before a depleted Gambian side drew 2-2 in Cape Verde in the final game.
After narrowly missing out again for the 2008 edition, Paul Put was drafted in just two weeks before the next qualifiers begin and if not for the controversial CAF rules adopted after already two games into the qualifiers, the Scorpions would've secured a place in the final phase of the qualifiers in a group that also includes Senegal and Algeria. We finished on just a single point behind Algeria who went onto qualify for the World Cup that same year beating Egypt on the way.
Not only did the Gambia also secured its first ever competitive point in Dakar in a 1-1 draw in October 2008, it also finished ahead of a Teranga Lions side that was boosting the likes of Diouf, Fadiga, Diawara, Dia, Diakhite, Henri Camara amongst others. It would be recalled that the Scorpions also secured an impressive goalless stalemate with Senegal in Banjul in 2003 with the opponents coming at the back of a strong world cup campaign where they went up to the last eight in Korea and Japan 2002.
How things have changed quickly for those teams with each of them bar Namibia making at least an appearance at the Nations Cup while Gambia continues to be in the obscurity of African football. Cape Verde defeated Cameroon 2-0 at home and forced them to a 1-1 draw in Yaoundé with Samuel Eto'o in the team to qualify for South Africa. DR Congo has also recovered from the Gambian shocker to make an appearance in 2013 and when I watched them forced Ghana to a 2-2 draw in their opening game on Sunday, I feel sad and begin to ask myself questions that I still cannot find answers to. In fact this was the motivation behind this commentary.
Emanuel Agyemang Badu scored the opening goal of this year's tournament for Ghana and this was a player who participated at the 2005 African U-17 championship in Banjul which Gambia eventually won. Compare the level he is currently at with Italian top flight side Udinese and the class of that Gambian team in 2005. Not only him, Cheikh Diabate and Alan Traore of Mali and Burkina Faso respectively both participated in that Gambian championship and the trio are all making there second appearance at the African Cup Nations.
Senegal after that Gambia debacle sacked their FA and put in new people and qualified for the 2012 edition though they lost all three games in the group stages and humiliatingly exited at the first hurdle despite an abundance of start players in the team.
Recent new comers
With all due respect to teams like Botswana, Niger and Ethiopia, if all this teams dominated by locally based players can qualify for the nations cup, why not Gambia? Botswana appeared in the last edition in Gabon and Equatorial in 2012 with 18 semi professionals with the majority of the team then serving as military men in that South Africa country and Zambia went onto win the title with only a single player playing in Europe in a mediocre league in Switzerland.
The Gambian leader His Excellency Professor Jammeh has invested heavily in making sure that Gambia secures qualification to AFCON by at least 2010.He continously pumps in millions in both male and female football. This support was recognised by the highest authorities of world football when FIFA president last year told a visiting Gambian delegation to extend his greetings to him and thanked him for his continues support.
Frequent international friendly matches are needed to better prepare for competitive outings while putting all out sentiments aside and work for our national interest to achieve our common goal. The league should be structured in a way that has to meet the international standard because we cannot continue to rely on the so-called foreign based players.