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Gambia relishing chance to serve as AFCON giant-killers all over again

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Tiny Gambia might find themselves facing a tough proposition in their group at the Africa Cup of Nations finals but coach Tom Saintfiet reckons none of their fancied opponents will be relishing going up against his side.

Gambia, whose population of some 2.64 million pales in comparison to most countries at this month’s tournament in the Ivory Coast, are competing at the finals for a second time but in their debut appearance two years ago were giant-killers and progressed to the quarter-finals.

“I’m aware that it will be tough to repeat what we did two years ago. Cameroon, Guinea and Senegal are all top contenders and it is a group of death but I don’t think any of them is pleased about the prospect of going up against us,” Saintfiet said in an interview with Reuters.

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Gambia, who start their Group C campaign against holders Senegal in Yamoussoukro on Monday, have progressed rapidly since the arrival of the nomadic Belgian, who had nine different national team coaching jobs before moving to West Africa.

“When I arrived, Gambia were 172 in the world, and they had not won a competitive match for five years. My first salary was the least I’d ever earned but I had made an analysis of the team and I felt there was potential,” he said.

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“I told the federation president I’d qualify them for the Cup of Nations but he laughed and said ‘First win a match’. But they gave me the freedom to do my job and we slowly built a successful process.”

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Gambia qualified top of their group to make the 24-team field for the 2021 tournament and continued the upsets at the finals in Cameroon, beating Tunisia and Guinea before succumbing to the hosts in the quarter-finals.

The recipe two years ago was a determination to stay involved in the tournament as long as possible.

“Our attitude was we are not just happy to be here; rather we’ll only be happy if we stay as long as possible here. I think that determination was the strength of the team. They were heartbroken when we finally went home,” Saintfiet said.

Behind his desk at home in Belgium, Saintfiet has a display of 10 football shirts – all of the different national teams he has coached. His first was Namibia in 2008, and since he has worked in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Yemen, Malawi, Togo, Bangladesh, Trinidad & Tobago and Malta before Gambia.

Some of the assignments lasted only months but the 50-year-old says he drew from each experience.

“When I look back, each job helped me to be a better coach, giving me unique insights and helping me learn from mistakes,” he added.

His stewardship of Gambia is without a doubt his most successful mission to date and there is every determination to upset the odds all over again.

“We are underdogs but we like it that way,” Saintfiet said.

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