The coup of the 1994 met the country just months away from the start of the 1996 Nations Cup qualifiers under a six-month old elected executive led by Alhaji O B Conateh.
The Scorpions had just returned from Sierra Leone a few months previously where they finished as semi-finalists and came home to a hero’s welcome marked with pomp and pageantry, raising high hopes of the onset of another great generation of Gambian football.
Ghana was the first to come providing the nation a chance to see the Black Stars who two years previously were vice champions in the Senegal ’92 Cup of Nations, adding to the excitement of Gambians for the match.
A day before the match however, a coup attempt was reported and the international media speculated the match might not go ahead but the atmosphere was so normal and peaceful that the match went ahead with The Gambia playing heroics to keep the score a respected 2-1 win for Ghana, with even Ghanaian players commending the Scorpions’ performance.
The Gambia of course did not qualify for that ’96 Nations Cup with Ghana, Congo Brazzaville the big guns taking the two places to South Africa but the country’s confidence continued to rise in the build-up to the 1997 eight-nation Zone Two championship which the country hosted.
This tournament was so well-organised that many international journalists commented it was even bigger than most Cup of Nations’ tournaments. The Gambia stopped at the semi-final but the involvement of the entire nation, up the highest level, helped galvanised national interest and passion for the Gambian game. President Yahya Jammeh made numerous appearances during the tournament and he famously told me on one of his visits that: “The good thing about football is that it generates great patriotism and unity among citizens. Today there is no APRC, UDP or PDOIS here, everyone is one – that’s The Gambia”.
The president’s attachments to football never diminished since then. He regularly opened his doors to football delegations and officials and offered huge personal financial assistance to bankroll the national teams’ participation in international tournaments as well as providing transport to facilitate training and movement.
For the first time in the history of the country, all national team players were in 2003 allocated properties by way of incentives as they head for a Nations Cup qualifier in Liberia.
In 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the July 22 Revolution, the president staged a peace tournament, featuring Under-17 football teams from around West Africa. This proved a perfect preparation for The Gambia who went on to host the 2004 African Under-17 championship and won it.
Though The Gambia had previously qualified for the Under-17 in 2003 in Swaziland, the 2005 tournament marked the beginning of hopes and new beginning in Gambian football. The terrific performance of the boys, the overwhelming support of the nation, and the personal involvement of President Jammeh in the project made it a resounding success with the team moving to the World Series in Peru, where it beat Brazil 3-1. Some of the current Brazil national team players such as Marcelo were in that tournament.
The country’s success at the Under-17 naturally fed the Under- 20 with ambition and quality and The Gambia went to finish in third place in the African Under-20 championship in Congo in 2007 but they could not come out of the group in the world series in Canada. So the Under-17 team, now dubbed by President Jammeh as the ‘Baby Scorpions’ remain the flagship of the GFA’s international campaign under then president Seedy Kinteh.
In April 2009, the team lifted the African title again this time in Algeria. President Jammeh instantly responded by dishing out one million dollars to the team and officials making every player and some officials Gambian a millionaires.
The national Under-17 female team too, made great inroads to international fame qualifying for the first time to the World Series in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile at senior level the GFA fast tracked the promotion of the Under-17 heroes to take the mantle of the senior team after the much established senior players were removed after the complained against their treatment. The young boys with a few blend of the many discovered Europe based Gambian origin players gave good show in the combined 2008 Cup of nations and 2010 world cup qualifiers, upsetting Senegal in a dramatic 1-1 draw that eliminated Senegal. The Gambia failed to progress to the next phase of the qualifiers on differences but the performance sparked wild celebrations around the country.
The Gambia may have very sound football programmes and great technicians and players in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s but the country’s solid achievement in the game was certainly in the past two decades with two African Under-17 titles under our belt.
What’s more, the Gambia Football Federation was allocated land on which they have built their headquarters and they have a technical training centre and two artificial turfs at the Brikama and Yundum pitches.
Much of that success of course was possible largely because of the personal involvement of President Jammeh and his government who have pumped millions of dalasis into the game. The dynamism of football leaders such as the OB Conateh, Seedy Kinteh and others have to be commended.
Other sports such as athletics also prospered with The Gambia for the first time reaching the semi-finals of an Olympic event, when Swaibou Sanneh competed in the London 2012 summer games.
In general sporting matters, the country’s parliament enacted a bill that established the National Sports Council which gives greater role for the formulation of policies that would address the shortcomings in sports development as well as regulate the administration of sports in the country.
The development of sports in the last two decades cannot also divorce from the sports media. Led by the Daily Observer in its early days, Gambian sports was put on the daily lives of citizens every day. The advent of television also played a key role with a very active sports department covering every twist and turn of Gambian sports. And now with proliferation of frequency modulation radios, the sports media grew in number and vibrancy.]]>