Last month The Gambia played South Sudan beating the men from Juba 3-2 in a five-goal thriller on Day 5 of the Caf Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers in Côte d’Ivoire 2024. The results saw The Gambia move a step closer to a second consecutive finals appearance. The win over South Sudan combined with Congo’s defeat by Mali (0-2), puts the Scorpions in a favourable position ahead of their meeting with the Diables Rouges in September. Tom Saintfiet, the Scorpions’ Belgian coach, is expecting a complicated match. Here he talks to Africa Sports News about the match and its importance to the tiny nation of passionate football lovers.
The results of Match Day 5 were very favourable for The Gambia, which now only needs a draw against Congo to qualify. What is your take?
We beat South Sudan, a worthy opponent who is constantly improving, but with difficulty (3-2). And Mali, one of the best African teams, won in Congo (2-0). These results put us in second place. So we’ll need a draw against Congo to qualify. So we’re a bit more relaxed, but nothing’s done yet. We’ll have to play a very serious match in September.
Do you know where this decisive match will take place?
No, not yet. A lot of people are hoping that we’ll finally be able to play at home, in Banjul, in front of our supporters. But for that to happen, the stadium has to be inspected by Caf and approved. So we also have to be prepared to play in Morocco or elsewhere. It’s always better to play in front of your own fans, but we’re used to playing abroad.
Your team won in extra time against South Sudan. How do you explain the fact that The Gambia scores so many goals in the final minutes?
I’ve done the maths: since my appointment, the team has scored 40 goals in 38 matches. That includes 10 between the 68th and 90th minute, and 8 in added time. We finish our matches well because we work hard on our physical preparation at training camps, because we’re determined not to give up. In general, we don’t start our matches with the obligation to score very quickly. So much the better if that happens, but we know how to remain patient. Congo have just suffered a defeat at home, and will have more to lose than The Gambia, given that they have not taken part in a finals since 2015. They’re a good team. They won the first leg (1-0), and that means we’ll be taking into account the individual goal-average, which is in their favour, and not the overall goal-average, which is in our favour. The Congolese will have to win, while a draw will be enough for us. But it’s always difficult to go out on the pitch and say you’re going to play for a draw. It’s not a good calculation. You always play a match to win it.
You haven’t selected any Gambian-based players for the matches against South Sudan and Mali in March. Are you being criticised for this?
There are obviously people who are surprised not to see any locals in the squad. Some of my staff are Gambian, so they see matches in the local league. And I have to take the best players for the national team. But the best Gambians play abroad, particularly in Europe. In The Gambia, the league is not really professional, the players earn 30 or 40 euros a month, so when they can go elsewhere, they do.
Do you still get a few rejections?
Yes, it happens. There are players playing in Europe who want to wear The Gambia shirt, but sometimes it’s their agents who decide and make sure that the player doesn’t come to the national team. It’s a shame, but there’s nothing I can do about it…