By Alagie Manneh
Gambia national team coach Tom Sainfiet who guided the Scorpions to a second Afcon appearance and has just being nominated for the best national team coach in Africa for the second time, has been giving his thoughts on the unprecedented feat and his work and future to The Standard.
Congratulations on guiding The Gambia to qualify twice for the Afcon. How did you see the team’s qualification?
Definitely, it was not easy and I think many Gambians forget that it’s not very common that teams qualify for Afcon consecutively except a few big footballing nations. But others have struggled after their first qualification to get back to Afcon. These include Burundi, Madagascar, The Comoros Islands, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Namibia and even Angola. So, I think it’s very unique and I am very proud and I see this second qualification as even bigger than the first one. But I must say, I am very proud of the whole team, the staff, the federation, and everyone involved in it.
I know that you are not a resident coach in The Gambia and your appointment allows you to stay in Belgium and work with the Gambian professional players. Why is it that your contract does not include you being resident in The Gambia and developing Gambia local teams to be the nucleus of the national team?
In my first year, I lived full time in The Gambia and I watched all matches in the league and in our towns and school competitions and that gives me a good idea to know exactly what happens in Gambian football and also have a quality local staff. People like Alagie Sarr, Alagie Marong are two very experienced local coaches and alongside them I also have on the ground team manager Ousman Drammeh, head of competition Ebou Faye and Lamin Sanneh, the former Falcons coach, now Milan coach. I discuss Gambian football with all these people almost on a daily basis where ever I am on the globe. So, yes I stay and scout players in Europe which is also much cheaper for the federation rather than renting a house or an apartment in Banjul. Another reason is that at the moment almost everyone who is selected in the national team plays in Europe and there’s a reason for that. In The Gambia we have a development league where players get developed and only at a young age, get sold to Europe and that’s fantastic. Our clubs have done a great job in that. It’s a very good business concept and I am very proud of that. Thanks to these clubs we have all these good players, but it’s clear that players at the age of 18, 19, 20 want to make the move to Europe and if they then perform well in Europe then they get opportunities, chances to be in the picture for the national team. But every local based player is also screened by our staff and we are always trying to make the strongest selection to compete with our opponents.
Many people said that while you may have qualified the team, your style of football is notoriously defensive. What do you say to that?
Yeah, I really don’t care too much what people say for a country that didn’t qualify for many years with attacking football. Besides we too also attack; we score goals and have more ball possession than our opponents. We play different football than what people see in the streets, maybe. But we play football to achieve results, and we play football related to the quality of our players. Many times, I have explained that The Gambia has a lot of speed, and for speed you need space, and space you can create only by creating space behind the defense of the opponent,and not by playing in the half of the opponent. People who studied, experienced, and understand football would know. So, I’m not really worried about the critics. I think for five years now some people have been criticising and that is their right; they can have their opinion, but I think we have proven as a team that we know how to do it.
They said that while the style yields results, it may fail The Gambia one day especially when you meet with big teams.
The Gambia is still 118 in the world ranking. We are still the second smallest country to qualify for Afcon. I have no idea where Gambians get the opinion that we are now a top nation in African football. We are not Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and even countries such as DR Congo, Burkina Faso and Guinea. They are so many miles ahead of us, and experience playing big tournaments, and have so many players playing at higher levels than our players. So, we try to always play football suitable to us at a time. We play different football against different opponents.
They say that your work and success is always based on luck. Is this true?
Laughs. So I have been lucky for five years and all the other coaches in the six years before me had no luck and am the only coach riding on ‘luck’ all this time?
Has there been any interference in your selection of players by the Gambia Football Federation or its executive members?
I never got any interference of any member of the GFF in my selection. I have a very strong technical team, and we always discuss every decision we take, and we have never got any interference from outside.
Fans also sometimes complain that certain players who might be on top of their game are sometimes overlooked by you most particularly Ali Sowe, do you agree?
First of all, it is not about what they do in their clubs; it’s what they do in the national team. We need players who can perform on the African soil in the team concept. I think the judgment sometimes of European football and leagues is not always accurate in relation to the national team. You see 72 players got called up, 36 players made their debut. Some players got chances and didn’t show what they really could do. We are national team coaches. We make the selection not for the best players, but for the best team. It’s always about team performance, and never about individual performance.
Why is it that some players would be in top form yet you wouldn’t invite them?
I really don’t understand your question. I don’t know if you are a football man. I don’t know if you know anything of football, but it’s not the idea that you are on top form and should get selected even in a position where I have others playing really well. It’s about performance in the national team. And on tacticals, we often have only one or two training sessions. The tactical knowledge suitable for the tactical system in our matches is what counts. And not that you play somewhere in Europe and score a lot of goals in a league.
You hardly disagree with your employers, the GFF, yet we all know that coaches are not all the time happy with their administrators. Why do you find it hard to express your honest opinion about issues or the overall management of football in The Gambia?
I don’t criticise them because there’s no reason for it. We work hand-in-hand. I have a very good federation. I have worked with different FAs all over different continents, and I can compare and I can tell you that the GFF, the president, board and everyone is doing a great job. So, I think they deserve all credit and all the support. If I have something to say, I tell it to them, I don’t need to tell it to the public or the media.
How far do you think Gambian football in general can go?
Gambian football is now respected in Africa. We qualified back-to-back, our Under-20 went to the World Cup and all of these never happened together in the history of Gambian football. So, I think everyone in Gambia is doing a great job. Also at club level – if I see clubs like Falcons, like BK Milan, Fortune, Wallidan, Real de Banjul, academies like Gambinos, everyone is doing a great job in the development of players. The result of Gambian football is team work. Everyone is working very hard in the development of Gambian football to improve it. I think that The Gambia is on the right track and with that step-by-step we can become a seriously respected country in Africa.
What are your expectations for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers?
My ambition is always that we would be a regular in Afcon, but that doesn’t mean always as even Nigeria failed to qualify the last ten years, South Africa and others. It won’t be easy to go to the World Cup, but we are not afraid of anyone and will play hard to achieve our goals.
Let’s talk about your personal life. You seem to have an African family. Do you see your future in African football for any long?
I have the feeling that you have no idea who I am. Since 2008 I have been in Africa, and coached many African teams, and I am highly respected in all the countries I worked in, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa. My wife and I met in 2008, and we have been together for more than ten years now. We have a daughter, so, yes, I love African football, and I probably know more about Africa than many people who are born in the continent. I have followed, read and studied African football for more than 30 years. Yeah. My future is in Africa and I love Africa.
There is news that you already may have been approached by other African countries to work for them. Has there been any country that approached you and if that is the case, will you consider the offer?
I get constant offers from big African nations, and financially very attractive ones. Even before I came to The Gambia, I was respected by the countries I work for, and people know me. So, I always get offers, but I feel good in The Gambia. I work with a fantastic federation, training staff and great players. I enjoy my work and I believe in the potential, so, I don’t see any reason to leave.