Africa-Press – Angola. The Gambia participated in the first finals of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in their history, reaching the quarterfinals. They were beaten but with not without a fight, by Cameroon (0-2). Tom Saintfiet, the Belgian coach of the Scorpions, spoke about their surprising journey and the experience of the Gambian team in the country of the Indomitable Lions.
Like Madagascar in 2019 in Egypt, Gambia stretched its stay in Cameroon until the quarterfinals, imitating the Malagasy side who participated in their own first AFCON. Tom Saintfiet (48), coach of the Scorpions since July 2018, returned to Belgium on Wednesday.
He did not pass through Banjul, where the festivities have been postponed… partly because of the demands of European clubs on the players.
Ahead of his return, we caught up with the Gambian coach.
Why couldn’t you make a trip to Banjul?
Tom Saintfiet: We played on Saturday in Douala against Cameroon. Some players left Cameroon quickly to return to Europe where their clubs were waiting for them. Others, as well as members of the staff and myself, waited until Tuesday for a flight to Gambia. As I had no news, I decided to return to Belgium by taking a plane on Wednesday night.
And it was only after I had made my decision that I knew that something had finally been organised to go via Banjul, but for me it was too late. A few players and staff members took the flight, but there were no celebrations on arrival because it was dark.
Is there anything planned for the return match against Chad in March in the preliminary round of the 2023 African Cup of Nations?
To date, I don’t think so. The head of state (Adama Barrow) thanked the team for their performance. That is all. We know of course that the Gambian people celebrated our performance a great deal, that people are very proud of us.
We would have liked to spend some time in Gambia to celebrate this great achievement with the people, but it was not possible. The players are expected in Europe by their clubs. It’s a pity, but that’s how it is.
Your team’s performance was a surprise. Did you expect Gambia to reach the quarter-finals?
We have been doing well against big African teams for several years.
We drew twice against Algeria, we beat Guinea, Morocco, and to qualify for this AFCON, we finished first in our group, ahead of Gabon, DR Congo and Angola. We don’t have any stars, and if we want to compete with the best, we have to be very disciplined and rigorous. This is what has enabled us to achieve this excellent result, which the players can be proud of.
What did you do to boost the motivation of your players?
I emphasised our results in recent years. I showed videos of Denmark and Greece, European champions in 1992 and 2004, and Zambia, African champions in 2012, when nobody expected them.
To the press, before the African Cup of Nations, I said that we were there to progress, to try to do well. To my players, in my speeches, I told them that we had come to Cameroon to win the AFCON! We didn’t succeed, but reaching the quarter-finals was a great joy. We can be proud of our performance.
The hardest part is now beginning perhaps…
Yes, I said that this qualification should not be a one-shot deal. I said that Gambia must continue to work to be a regular participant in the final phase of the AFCON.
We must keep this state of mind, this discipline. I don’t have the squad of Cameroon, Algeria or Côte d’Ivoire. I do have players who play in Italy, Switzerland, Portugal or Belgium. But others are in Division 4 in England or even in D5 in Switzerland. Our success is based on our state of mind, discipline and solidarity.
In March, we will play Chad twice in the preliminary round of the 2023 African Cup of Nations, and that will be a good test. We will have to be very serious if we want to confirm this quarter-final in Cameroon.
In the first round, your team was based in Limbe, in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, where separatists are in armed conflict with the government. All four teams (Gambia, Mali, Tunisia and Mauritania) reportedly received threats before the tournament. Did you fear for your safety?
The instructions were very strict: we were not allowed to leave our hotel, except to go to training sessions and matches!
We were struck by the number of soldiers and police deployed everywhere. Around our hotel, at the stadium, on the roads, and when we went to train, there were a lot of law enforcement officers, including near the houses near the training ground. When the players arrived in Limbe, they were obviously a bit worried because they are not used to it. I myself have worked in many African countries and the atmosphere was more relaxed. But there were no problems, the security was very good.
Before your round of 16 match against Guinea (1-0), you criticised certain aspects of the organisation. Your federation tempered your comments and CAF said that you were not telling the truth…
I mentioned our hotel in Bafoussam. Several players and staff members, including myself, were sick the night before the match. The Cape Verdians, who stayed in the same hotel, also had problems.
I just said that the food was not good, and that the players had to be six per accommodation – it was more like a small flat than a hotel room – but with two beds per room, only one bathroom and one toilet. If one player is infected with Covid, all the others can be.
All I’m asking is that all the teams at an African Cup of Nations finals be accommodated in hotels of the same standard (at the African Cup of Nations, the host country allocates the hotels to the delegations), nothing more…