Tom Saintfiet, the Belgian coach who transformed Gambia from minnows to Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finalists this year, desperately wants to avoid the fate that befell Madagascar.
Debutants Madagascar took the 2019 Cup of Nations in Egypt by storm, stunning Nigeria in a group match, then eliminating the Democratic Republic of Congo before falling to Tunisia in the quarter-finals.
But as quickly as the Malagasy rose, they crashed, failing to make it to the 2021 Cup of Nations and winning only one of six World Cup qualifiers.
Saintfiet wants Gambia, a small coastal west African nation surrounded by Senegal, to build on a great run in Cameroon, where they upset Tunisia and Guinea before losing a last-eight clash with the hosts.
“We do not want to be remembered as one-tournament wonders — we want to qualify for the 2023 and 2025 Cup of Nations finals and for the 2026 World Cup,” he told reporters in Gambia.
Gambia play Chad on Thursday, one day after qualifying for the 2023 Cup of Nations in the Ivory Coast kicks off, and the Belgian is worried, even though they are facing rivals ranked 180th in the world.
“Our matches against Chad will be tougher than those against Guinea and Tunisia,” insisted the 48-year-old who has coached national teams in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
“We have a lot to lose while Chad have nothing to lose. They can call on professionals based in France and Belgium and are a good team.”
While Saintfiet is wary of Chad, they are one of 10 countries among the 54 in Africa who have never qualified for the Cup of Nations.
– ‘Sad situation’ –
Neither the first leg, nor the return match next Tuesday, will be played in the respective countries because no Chadian or Gambian stadiums meet international standards.
Chad host the first encounter in the Cameroon capital, Yaounde, while Gambia will use the Moroccan coastal city of Agadir for their ‘home’ fixture.
“This is a very sad situation,” said Saintfiet. “Gambian supporters desperately wanted to see their heroes in action and now they will have to settle for watching the matches on TV.”
A blow for Gambia will be the absence of star Belgium-based winger Albie Jallow, who is recovering from a knee injury sustained in the Cup of Nations last-16 victory over Guinea.
Better news for the Scorpions is that another forward, Ebrima Colley from Italian Serie A outfit Spezia, has regained fitness and been included in a 23-man squad.
Missing from the group that exceeded expectations in Cameroon are two retirees — captain and full-back Pa Modou Jagne and midfielder Ebrima Sohna.
Reaching the quarter-finals saw Gambia rise 25 places in the world rankings to 125th, but the preliminary round draw was made before the dramatic rise, hence the need to qualify for the group stage.
Gambia and Chad are not the only countries affected by stricter regulations regarding stadiums with Mauritius the sole team among the 10 in action who can play at home.
Sao Tome e Principe, the Portuguese-speaking island nation off the west coast of Africa, have conceded home advantage and will play Mauritius twice in Port Louis.
The aggregate winners and Botswana, who received a walkover when Eritrea withdrew, go into a draw that will create 12 four-team groups with the winners and runners-up heading to the Ivory Coast.