Darboe and Colley leading streetwise Africa Cup of Nations debutants Gambia


[24-01-2022 02:37 PM]

Ammon News - Few expected much from the continent’s smallest mainland country but Tom Saintfiet has given them belief in last-16 run

Ebrima Darboe is reflecting on the sharper edges Gambia have brought to this Africa Cup of Nations and lands upon the influence of his club manager. “He’s helped me a lot with my character,” says the young Roma player of José Mourinho, who has kept him close to the first-team squad this season. “I was such a good person and he taught me that in football you don’t have to be too nice, you have to be nasty.”

The point is relevant to Gambia’s eye-catching Cup of Nations campaign. They are debutants and nobody would, on the face of things, have expected much from a side representing the continent’s smallest mainland country. But the Scorpions had an excellent group stage, beating Tunisia and drawing with a fancied Mali, and face Guinea on Monday in an extremely winnable last-16 tie. They have done it by boxing clever: once maligned, Gambian players are making their way in Europe’s bigger leagues and discovering the streetwise edge of winners.

“We used to play tiki taka, just trying pretty football, and in the end we’d lose 2-0 or 3-0,” reflects the Sampdoria defender Omar Colley, who joins Darboe among six Italy-based players in Tom Saintfiet’s well-travelled squad. Colley was in the Gambia team that won the African Under-17 Championship in 2009 but never expected them to make the next step. For scouts and agents, the country was a blind spot engulfed by its glamorous neighbour Senegal; a two-year ban from continental competitions in 2014, handed down for fielding overage players at under-20 level, did not help – but the new generation are in demand.


“If you look at our previous youth teams, most of the guys eventually stopped because of limited opportunities to turn professional,” Colley says. “After three or four years trying to go abroad you need to find solutions to help your family and yourself. But now people are coming to Gambia to find players: things are changing.”

The electric Bologna forward Musa Barrow is another of Gambia’s Serie A contingent and Colley believes that, in tandem with Sainfiet’s rigour, Italian habits are making a difference. “We know that in Italy you have to be tactically disciplined, and that defending is one of the features of the game there,” he says. “Maybe it helps in our games if the coach wants to defend and counterattack; with his experience it’s the perfect match. We don’t have possession a lot but our tactics are always coherent.”

Seeing their compatriots operating at the top level tells younger players that, one day, they may do too. Such role models have been rare for Gambia since the era of Biri Biri, who thrived at Sevilla in the 1970s, and things have not come easily to the present-day success stories. Darboe undertook a perilous, deeply traumatic unaccompanied journey to Italy aged 15, spending three months travelling by bus to Libya and then boarding an inflatable craft to cross the Mediterranean.

A lifeboat helped him complete the voyage, which is a topic that does not lend itself readily to words. Darboe weighed just 50kg by the time he arrived in Sicily. “When I took the journey I did it to go and chase my dream, to have a better life, to continue learning and playing football,” Darboe says. “I had no other choice. It was hard and I don’t like to talk about it much, but believe me it was not easy. I thank god that today I am here.”

Thousands of people have not been so lucky. Darboe began to make his way in football: after playing for a club in Rieti he attracted offers from lower-division clubs but could not believe his ears when his agent said Roma would like to take him on trial. “I asked: ‘You mean a local team in Rome or the Roma I know in Serie A?” he remembers. A 15-minute glimpse was enough to earn him a deal and, although he could not play for the youth teams for the following 18 months while his refugee status was registered, his blossoming has been worth the wait.

The same can be said of Gambia’s performance in Cameroon. “We aren’t surprised by it, we know our value,” Darboe says. “Everyone is talking about ‘underdogs, underdogs, underdogs’ but we believe it is our time to shine,” Colley agrees. Saintfiet has moulded a team from locations as diverse as Forest Green Rovers and Ifo Bromolla in Sweden; Darboe and Colley both speak glowingly of his motivational qualities, evident when he stops for an affectionate exchange with them during the conversation. “He wants to change the mentality and make sure we believe in ourselves,” Colley says. “We believe we can do what Senegal are doing.”


Now they would like to be treated with the same respect as Africa’s more feted names. Their hotel for the three days before they face Guinea, nestled among idyllic foothills in Cameroon’s north-west, is easy on the eye but not on the basics needed for match preparation. Players have been sleeping four or six to a room, which risks being a particular issue during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they were initially required to share lodgings at their group stage accommodation in Buea. Tales of slapdash team hotels at the Cup of Nations are a reliable trope but arrangements of this kind seem beyond the pale.

“If my club saw this they would think it was a joke,” Colley says. “It’s not what we are expecting. It’s our first time and you want a memorable experience, we thought everything would be perfect. We are underdogs from a small country but we are a good team and deserve to be treated better: you wouldn’t treat the bigger sides in the same way.”

Against a moderate Guinea side that will be missing the suspended Naby Keïta, though, Gambia will use it as further proof they have developed the thick skin worn by potential title contenders. “Even if they put us 10 to a room we will go out there and show them we are extra-motivated and better than this,” Colley adds. “Every day is a party in Gambia at the moment and we want it to continue.”

*the guardian




  • no comments

Notice
All comments are reviewed and posted only if approved.
Ammon News reserves the right to delete any comment at any time, and for any reason, and will not publish any comment containing offense or deviating from the subject at hand, or to include the names of any personalities or to stir up sectarian, sectarian or racial strife, hoping to adhere to a high level of the comments as they express The extent of the progress and culture of Ammon News' visitors, noting that the comments are expressed only by the owners.
name : *
email
show email
comment : *
Verification code : Refresh
write code :