In 2005, I visited The Gambia for the first time. I went there to cover the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations (the U17 AFCON) which they hosted, as a producer/correspondent of SuperSport, in my journalism days.

I fell in love with the country. It was a wonderful nation – quiet, safe, yet bubbly. I noticed that a lot of Europeans visited The Gambia for a real good getaway holiday. The beach was nice, attractive, and easily accessible. In fact, there were a lot of landmasses surrounded by, or fronted by the beach that sits astride the Atlantic Ocean.

Finishing the day’s work, I will always go with my crew to the beachside and enjoy a meal and a drink, and it was always heavenly. For a time, the always ambitious, forward-looking, spot-an-investment-potential Tunde contemplated acquiring a property in The Gambia to expand my portfolio.

What impressed me most though, was the football. I saw the growth of the game in that country. I saw the desire. And I saw potential.

There were question marks when they won the competition – and those questions are not for this platform. But the likes of the late Omar Sey (former President of the Gambia Football Federation – now deceased), Jammeh Bojang (former General Secretary of the GFF) showed a genuine desire and hunger that the nation be brought to the forefront of the football map of Africa.

Like I said, they won the 2005 tournament and I was impressed.

The Gambia went on to represent Africa at the 2005 U17 FIFA World Cup in Peru where they caused another big sensation – and it was not just that they beat Brazil 3-1 in their opening game. It was not that they beat Qatar 3-1 in their second game.

The news was that, having won the first two games in the group, they lost their third game 2-0 to the Netherlands and still went out of the tournament in spite of having 6 points and a +2 goals average!

And so it seemed that with that generation of footballers gone, down went the dream of raising the standard of the game in the beautiful country of The Gambia.

Fast forward a few years – July 2018 to be precise – the current Gambian Football Federation setup hired a well-travelled young coach – Tom Saintfiet to lead their team.

Saintfiet had been around – Namibia, Ethiopia, Malawi. He started coaching very young because his playing career in his native Belgium was truncated by a bad injury to his knee. He was at some point named head coach of Zimbabwe but was caught up in the politics of the nation (government vs FA) and had to be smuggled out of Zimbabwe in the dead of the night to avoid being arrested and locked up!

Then he was named publicly as Nigeria Football Federation Technical Director designate, was getting prepared for the job but the NFF never received the blessing of the Nigerian government and the offer just fizzled out – the NFF laying the blame at the feet of the Sports Minister who wanted a local Technical Director to help build Nigerian football.

Saintfiet loved African football and believed he had something to give to the continent if he got the chance.

He never got a chance to take on a team from start to finish of a qualifying campaign let alone lead a team to a major tournament.

In Togo, he was hired in 2016 and led the Togo team to the brink of appearing in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations but was fired just before – again a political decision.

But we want to talk about the desire of a nation today – the Lamin Bajos (President of the Gambia Football Federation) and his executive – who stuck by the decision to hire Saintfiet and somehow managed to convince him to stay, in spite of what I would call quite interesting conditions.

But Saintfiet persevered, and is leading the team to historic prominence quietly.

His tactical awareness, his ability and openness to change and adaptation to the game based on his knowledge of the opposition has earned him and his very obedient and disciplined team a tag of ‘favourite underdogs’, or shall I say ‘favourite minnows’ in this year’s AFCON.

Scouting and coaching are important parts of team management. In 21st century football, you need to know everything – know your players, know their strengths and limitations; but also know your opponents in real detail. Saintfiet made it a point to do this alongside his technical crew mates.

The result was a very impressive first round, two wins that included a 1-0 win against a Tunisia side that eventually eliminated high-flying Nigeria, a 1-1 draw against the feared Mali, and knocking Guinea out to set up a mouthwatering quarter-final clash against hosts Cameroon.

Whatever happens in that game against Cameroon, The Gambia has exceeded expectation and deserve to be celebrated. What we hope for is that the country will build from this ‘success’ and grow and make sure they become a regular feature at top African competitions, but also to ensure that they get coaches that can imbibe the Tom Saintfiet ideals and techniques of modern-day coaching – which seem to be working everywhere he goes and gets a chance to put it to full test.

It is not easy to work in tough conditions and get good results. Tough conditions from employers, but also tough conditions in the course of the job. In this AFCON, The Gambia hotel scenario was such that they had SIX players sharing a bathroom pre their game against Guinea. The players then had food poisoning going into that game. But they had a resolve, and they saw the game through, with success.

Tomorrow, you and I need to look at ourselves and assess what conditions we find ourselves in. Not great, maybe? Could be better? You perhaps look at your peers and see that they are faring much better than you are.

Tell you what – look at what Saintfiet has led his Scorpions of The Gambia into doing in spite of the tough conditions – it took resolve, it took determination, it took a strong mindset. It took a resolve to detoxify and rid their mind of negativities around them, then employ KTA – knowing themselves and the opponents, devising a tactic that specifically targets the peculiarities of the adversary, and go into the field with a desire to act with intention!

For me so far, although many teams have caught my fancy, The Gambia is my team of the tournament – so far, I say!

We learn from them and their resolve, and we will be winners in whatever field we belong in!

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