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Lean On Me – The fantastic performance of The Scorpions at AFCON 2021 should inspire Gambians to higher heights

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By Katim S Touray

I am NOT a major fan of football (soccer to the Americans). I guess the roots of my attitude to what some have called The Beautiful Game can be found in my days at Armitage Secondary School in the early 1970s. As the smallest kid in the school, I was always the last to be selected to join the impromptu teams kids formed to play football. So, I specialised in squeezing lime we got from the school orchard to make juice for kunda or house team whenever we had our inter-kunda tournaments.

My love (whatever little of it I had) for the game didn’t increase much after I graduated from Armitage. I remember one day when I told an older cousin of mine and his friends that I wanted to choose a Banjul team to support so I could join the excitement of club football of those years. They suggested I support Starlight, one of the most popular teams back them, and which most of them supported. Shortly after that, I went with them to see a Starlight game in which a goal was scored against them. When they got depressed over that, I turned to them and said, very honestly, “I don’t feel anything!” They turned to me and said that I should just forget about football.

Later in my life, things went downhill for football, because I invented non-contact football. Basically, I got to the point where I was so averse to getting injured playing the game that whenever I had an opponent challenge me to get the ball, I gladly avoided contact, and let him (invariably it was male) have it.

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Nevertheless, I have always been excited about international football, especially the Fifa World Cup, and the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) organised by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) for the national football teams of African countries.

I got hooked to World Cup football at Armitage, where we were overfed films of England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup. To this day, names of England’s team members such as Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Allan Ball, as well as their coach Alf Ramsey bring back memories of our watching England’s 1966 World Cup victory.

It is important to note that I don’t remember ever being told that African countries boycotted the 1966 World Cup to protest against discrimination by Fifa, and Fifa’s admission of the then racist Apartheid South Africa its fold. Nevertheless, Africa made its mark on the tournament because Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, the Mozambique-born player who played for Portugal was, with 9 goals, the leading goal scorer of that tournament.

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A couple of decades later, I still am a keen follower of World Cup football, and Afcon. Fortunately, the advent of the Internet, satellite TV and social media has made it easier for football fans to have constant 24/7 access to their football teams and fellow supporters. In addition, many professional football teams around the world now have African players, making them even more attractive to fans in Africa. It is thus no surprise that many Africans are now consumed by their obsession with football, and for some, dreams of one-day becoming professional players.

However, I am not one of those football-crazy fans (a word derived from “fanatic”), and I have written about my reservations about the big lie African youths are being fed that their future lies in football.

Nevertheless I, like many Africans, Gambians especially, looked forward to this year’s Afcon 2021 which is being held in Cameroon after it was postponed last year. Forty six years after The Gambia’s first attempt to qualify for the African Cup of Nations finals in 1975, our national team, nicknamed “The Scorpions”, qualified for Afcon 2021 in November 2021, after defeating Angola in an away match in Luanda.

Talk about an underdog! The Scorpions were ranked dead last in terms in the Fifa rankings of Afcon 2021 participating teams. Despite security concerns, food poisoning, and poor housing, The Scorpions (25 out of 28 of whom play professional football outside The Gambia) went on to hold Mali to a draw, and defeat Mauritania and Tunisia in the Group stage of Afcon 2021. The Scorpions then defeated Guinea in the knockout stage, before losing to Cameroon in the quarterfinals. What a run!

To say that The Scorpions defeated or had draws with teams that were formidable would be an understatement. While The Gambia was as at December 2021, ranked 150th out of 210 countries by Fifa in the world football rankings, Tunisia (which we defeated 1–0) was ranked 30th. Similarly, Mali (which had a draw with The Gambia) was ranked 53rd, Guinea was ranked 81st, and Cameroon was ranked 50th. Furthermore, both Cameroon and Tunisia have each appeared 19 times, while Guinea and Mali appeared 12 and 11 times, respectively, in previous Afcons. In contrast, Afcon 2021 was The Gambia’s first.

Football aside, The Gambia is in many other respects an underdog vis-à-vis the countries it faced in Afcon 2021. Cameroon, for example, had a population (26.5 million) that is 11 times that of The Gambia’s (2.4 million) in 2020. In the same vein, the gross domestic products (GDP) of Cameroon and Tunisia, at US$40.8 billion and US$41.6 billion, respectively, are 22 times the GDP of The Gambia (US$1.9 billion). They clearly have more money to throw at their teams than we do.

Why did a Cinderella team such as The Scorpions perform so well at Afcon 2021? Clearly, they have talent, and they finally found their groove thanks to their professionalism, and quality leadership of their Belgian coach, Tom Saintfiet. In addition, The Scorpions got huge support from Gambian fans, even though many could not travel to Cameroon to attend their matches.

The Scorpions’ incredible performance at Afcon 2021 came barely a month after divisive December 2021 presidential elections in the country. As such, their victory has been a much-needed balm to bring Gambians together, and help the nation heal.

To paraphrase the Bill Withers song, Lean On Me we, Gambians, should lean on the pride that The Scorpions have instilled in us to help us carry on with the business of national development. In particular, we should commit ourselves to developing a team spirit, and professionalism in the work we do. The performance of The Scorpions also underscores the fact that we need quality national leadership to inspire our team (the country) to achieve the unimaginable. The Scorpions have shown the way, and it would be an insult to the legacy they have bequeathed us if we fail to make the most of it.

The author is a soil scientist and an international development consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] or https://www.linkedin.com/in/kstouray For more articles by him visit: https://kstouray.medium.com

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