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SCORPIONS ON THE BRINK OF 2023 AFCON PLACE AS WIND OF OPTIMISM BLOWS ACROSS

From the Head of State to the Sports Minister, the GFF President, the coach of the Gambia National Team, the players, and the last supporter of the team. One thing they all eye, is the Gambia’s return to the AFCON for the second time in succession.

The team is truly on the brink, and the performance they showed to this stage, will leave any supporter with great hope. Scorpions of The Gambia are currently second in Group G, a position that is still in contention. But they stand the biggest chance to make it their own when they take on Congo who are third, three points adrift, and stand a chance to topple the Gambia – alas! – ‘God forbid.’ 

Gambia will take on Congo on Sunday 10th September in Morocco at 7 p.m. Gambian time for a place in the 2023 AFCON in Ivory Coast.

The worst the Gambia can avoid to return to the AFCON for the second time, is a defeat, which will see Congo through on a head-to-head basis, even though, they will tie on 9 points with the Scorpions. Their double victory over the Gambia will give them an advantage as per the CAF rules – that is if they (Congo) win.

THE SQUAD

The Gambia’s Belgian tactician, Tom Saintfiet, has named his squad that he believes can help him achieve another milestone – qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations for the second time under his spell.

On his previous unveiling, the Belgian has come under immense criticism. But it appears he got it almost all right this time as many of his critics did not lash at his mode of team selection. 

He named a 23-man squad that on paper looks solid, and it will not be any surprising if they look solid on the pitch too.

The team comprised notable names like Omar Colley, Modou Jobe, Able Jallow, Babucarr Gaye, Musa Barrow, and Assan Ceesay among others who all experienced the continental showpiece – AFCON, in the last edition in Cameroon which was the first time the Gambia make AFCON appearance.

Remarkably, they finished 6th overall – losing 2 – 0 to the host nation Cameroon in the quarterfinals.

This crop of players can be trusted. Judging by the clubs they are playing for, the playing times, and their form individually. Players like team captain Omar Colley, Ablie Jallow, Assan Ceesay, Muhammed Badamosi, and Yankuba Minteh were all on the scoresheet for their respective sides heading into the international break. With such form, and Tom Saintfiet’s pragmatic approach, one could only stay upbeat that the Scorpions are on course to write another history.

OPTIMISM AND REACTIONS.

I was opportune to be closer to the players during their training camp in Turkey in late 2022. I had interviews with a lot of them. As sensitive as they might appear, I still had casual discussions with a lot of them during their leisure time at the hotel, about their readiness for a return to the AFCON.

The message has been the same. ‘We want to go back to the AFCON. And, we will do whatever it takes to qualify. All we need is the support and prayers of the Gambian people, so we can make them proud again.’ This was what many of them echoed.

Quite reassuring, isn’t it? Those are committed statements that represent the mindset around the team. Under a coach [Tom] who likes bragging about his records and achievements. One could only sense complete readiness around the Scorpions team.

“We will do everything possible to write more history. It is not easy, though Congo-Brazzaville is a good team. They have good players and a good coach, so we will face a very tough challenge,”

“We want to qualify. We have tasted two years ago how beautiful AFCON is, and we want to go back there, and we will be ready to compete.” Tom said in an interview with Ebrima KB. Sonko.

Hopes are high that, the Scorpions will write another history as they did in March 2021 when Assan Ceesay scored a lone goal against Angola in Banjul to send millions around the country into ecstatic celebrations as the Scorpions qualify for the AFCON, - Remarkably, the first time in history.  

CAUTION!

As the game approaches, it's difficult for anyone to think about anything, other than a return to the AFCON for the Scorpions. But some of us who have been following football closely, know we can all come crashing, back down to earth if there is one bit of complacency. Not what anyone will pray for, but ruling it all together out, will go against football in all aspects.

With the physical strength Congo has in their squad, coupled with their experience in the AFCON [Winners in 1972, 4th Place 1974, Quarterfinalist 1992 & 2015].   You would expect their 1 – 0 win over the Scorpions in the first leg, to click them into gear. And they are under the guidance of a coach [Paul Put] who knows Gambian football, as little as it may, not new to him.

Congo will certainly look to mount some pressure as they look to make a return to the AFCON for the first time since 2015 in Equatorial Guinea.

This job for the Scorpions is close to being done but also far from done.

However, the Belgian tactician and this group of players know how to write history. They have set new standards. And, they are spoiling Scorpions’ fans who have suffered for too long with joy.

It will be mind-boggling to bet against them, turning more dreams into reality.

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