By Retired Lt. Col. Samsudeen Sarr
On Saturday, January 13, 2024, the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament will once again kick off in Ivory Coast, marking a biannual event that commenced over six decades ago. After a strenuous qualification journey spanning that period, The Gambia secured its first opportunity to compete in 2022, showcasing an impressive performance. The successful qualification for the second time in 2024 further solidifies The Gambia’s competence, dispelling any notion of luck associated with its initial qualification.
As The Gambia enters the 2024 tournament for the second time, it is my belief that many of the teams we overcame, including the formidable National Elephants of Guinea Conakry, might have underestimated the rookie Scorpions. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that all participating teams will approach matches against the Scorpions with greater seriousness during the Ivory Coast games. This anticipation implies that the Scorpions should prepare for a more challenging competition than before, commencing with their first match on Monday against the Lions of Senegal—the reigning champions who clinched victory in 2022.
In the 2022 tournament, the Gambian Scorpions did not face the Senegalese Lions to assess each other’s strengths, despite the historical advantage consistently favoring the latter. The recurring defeats of the Scorpions by the Lions in various international tournaments over the past six decades have taken on a mythical status, yet to be shattered. Obviously, the Senegalese team has consistently triumphed over the Gambian team in international matches, including the defunct Zone Two Games or the Amilcar Cabral tournament played by select West African teams in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, involving both Senegal and The Gambia.
Certain Senegalese supporters confidently proclaim that the Lions will once again defeat the Scorpions on Monday, as they have traditionally done, citing their perceived superiority—a claim easily dismissed as mere partisanship.
However, I don’t believe that the Scorpions of 2024 are a weaker team compared to the past, warranting judgment from the Senegalese to easily prevail over us as in previous encounters. Nonetheless, my concern lies on two fronts. Firstly, the Scorpions may face defeat against the Lions or any other team if they carry an overconfidence stemming from their previous performance. Alternatively, a loss may occur if they persist in playing their signature defensive game instead of adopting an offensive tactical approach. I found the defensive game plan disappointing and fear its repetition this time.
Furthermore, it’s evident that The Gambia is placed in a group with formidable teams, including Senegal (the current champion), Cameroon (five-time champions), and Guinea Conakry (four-time quarterfinalists). We are perceived as the weakest based on experience and performance. Cameroon consistently prepares well to win, and given our past humiliation of the Guineans, I anticipate a strong desire for revenge from them this year.
While I haven’t closely followed the Gambian players to gauge their abilities, I assume they possess the skills necessary for success. However, my ongoing concern is that the coach might opt for a defensive lineup rather than an offensive one, potentially hindering our progression to the knockout round of sixteen. Such an outcome would be a setback and demoralizing for our national championship aspirations.
The crucial nature of our first match against Senegal is undeniable. I hope and pray for a victory, not only to gain the respect of defeating the current champion but also to break the longstanding curse of consistently losing to our neighbors for over half a century. Becoming champions would undoubtedly be the achievement of the millennium. Thanks, and good luck Scorpions.