It was on January 12th 2022 that Africa welcomed a tiny country to the Africa cup of nations. This was a boast long overdue for a country that spent over half a century fighting for such a moment. Historically, Gambia's national anthem was sung for the first time in the AFCON when they stood up in the lineup in their opening group game against Mauritania.Emotional moment for the players and supporters some of whom were shedding tears as they sang along the anthem. Perhaps the Gambia's most-watched game in history, from the President of the Republic down under, many sat before television sets to watch a Scorpion maiden AFCON appearance with immense joy.The wait for such a moment is now history. Scorpions played five games, won three, drew one, lost one and exited at the quarterfinals, a truly historic achievement for a nation making its first AFCON appearance. For so long the game’s greatest underachievers at the grandest stage, could now consider themselves as overachievers. And whatever way, history will forever remember The Gambia for their achievements in the first AFCON berth.Remarkable start:Given the pre-tournament COVID cases and the poor preparations as all their preparatory test matches were all cancelled during their pre-tournament training camp, the Gambia came into the AFCON in almost total disarray and morale was at an all-time low.What better way, then, to give the team and the nation a much-needed boost than to pick up the victory. The Gambia marked their presence in the continental showpiece with an emphatic one-nil win over Mauritania as Abdoulie Jallow became the first Gambian player to score in the AFCON when he fired home an astonishing strike. This was the turning point for a once demoralised side.Boring but justified strategyAfter reaching the round of 16, Gambia's coach Tom Saintfiet may claim his boring tactical approaches to the games, a justified strategy, despite the criticisms, hence the Belgian stayed resolute on his approaches.Under Tom, gone are the days when the Gambia played dazzling football, adored by the games true romantics, only to realise that it leads to nothing but failed campaigns. For Tom, results mean everything and winning ugly is not considered a shame.For the Belgian, focus has become the new magic word in the Gambia's camp.Focus on the approach, focus on the opponents, focus on your own performance, focus on the ultimate goal (safety first), focus on the forthcoming game.Since his appointment in 2018, Tom told his disciples that they were on a mission. The journeyman was clear about what he wanted from his players. In return, he gave the players his full confidence, even when they were out of form as in the case of players without clubs but still included in the squad.Tom was not willing to sell out his defensive approach for any critic, he applied it and earned a one-all draw against Mali in the second game. Even before the final group games were played, the Gambia was already confirmed to have qualified for the Round of 16. Yet, Tom appeared as if he doesn't have it his way, he put his defensive tactics into practice against Tunisia and earned a one-nil win to finish level on points with Mali who top the group on goal difference. This was perhaps the most shocking moment for Tunisia, losing or finishing behind not only debutants but one of the 12 lowest-ranked nations. The Scorpions sails through to the Round of 16.The unthinkable unfoldsProgressing beyond the group phase was not just surprising but shocking to the continent, and beating Guinea in the round of 16 was unthinkable, but it unfolds before the sights of the footballing world and caught even the most ardent of support by surprise.That was the Gambia's sweetest victory not because it came at the Round of 16, but because it was the first time we saw the Gambia attacked with verve and precision. At halftime, the possession was 50 - 50 and in the second half, the Gambia gained 2% ahead of their opponents (52 - 48). The brilliant lone goal scored by Bologna's forward Musa Barrow was just a glimpse of the Gambia's attacking prowess, but the Belgian will never revert to playing attacking football as he had his journey ended at the next stage.End of the journeyTom and his tactics were all at sea against the host nation Cameroon in the quarterfinals, the Gambia were largely bystanders, uncharacteristically pedestrian from start to finish all as a result of poor tactical approach.Tom decided to start with two natural half-backs at either side of the defence, added to that, two centre backs and two deep-lying midfielders. This was purely a safety formation.The inexplicable tactics gave Cameroon players the space to move in a triangle in a way that had the Gambia in confusion and greatly reduced their chance of launching counterattacks. At halftime, it was all square and Tom have it his way as he said his game plan was 'not to concede in the first half.'Tom was already bewildered by Cameroon's high pressing game, he has no idea as to how to contain the host in the second half.After surviving a string of early Cameroonian incursions, the Gambia had their lines breached when Karl Toko Ekambia nodded home on the 50th minutes, before adding another one later in the game to draw an end to the Gambia's fairytale campaign.For an underachieving coach like Tom, this was the greatest achievement of his career but many criticised the Gambia for turning the beautiful game on its head.Former Nigeria captain Jay-Jay Okocha said this about the Gambia:"In terms of the level of play, the Gambia has been the worst team in AFCON, I hope they try to play than sit and defend.""It was only about Cameroon, you almost ask how did the Gambia make the quarterfinals with this performance."Senegal and Liverpool forward Sadio Mané also said to the Gambia team "have the courage to play, don't be scared in football there is no big team or small team, it is 11 men vs 11 men."For players so accustomed to beautiful football, playing ugly is always a pain in the heart. Who will blame Okocha and Mané for the comments!The Positives & NegativesSo long there's so much to brag about in this AFCON, there are equally loop holes as well. But first, the players put in so much effort to get the Gambia on the good side of history. Gambia's name has hit another height. This brought along reputation and respect for the country's players at the continental stage.A country under the heels of heated political campaign and elections were nothing but divided. Gambia's participation and performance in the AFCON create that much-needed reunion.In the business sector, it created markets. Thousands of Gambia's replica jerseys were sold out, added to, banners and flags. Recent reports revealed that the Gambia's shirts sold out during the AFCON period is as many times more than the past three decades.And how about the social media users, they used the videos and pictures of the Scorpions to increase their page likes, views and comments. Anytime a picture of the Scorpions is posted, it attracts greater attention.The players as well benefited during the campaign, as small as it may look, each player received a bonus that amounts to D700, 000 and the players are still promised ten thousand dollars each. All combined, that's a great earning for average earners like the Scorpions players within a short period.The unfortunates nearly overshadowed the Scorpions historic campaign with the whole drama starting with the 'Steve saga'. The country's most popular player going into the AFCON fall out with the coach and decided to abandon the team and returned to his club in the UAE. Even when both the federation and the player himself tried to sit on the information, sources within the camp revealed that the player left due to frustrations as he was unused in the country's first two games.As if that was not enough talking point, the team got stranded in Cameroon for a day after their exit. This triggered widespread condemnation as some players took to social media to lash at the Federation for being "selfish". "All they are saying is not true, they are only here for their pockets," one of the players said. But, the National Coordinating Committee say the delay was a result of a breach of contract by the Airline company.Some players could not stand it as they pay for their tickets to return to their various clubs.This was a major setback, as the planned 'hero's welcome' the thousands of Gambians were willing to accord the team was all cancelled. Instead of returning as heroes, the team returned as any ordinary passenger.Now that the AFCON is done and dusted, the onus lies on the Federation, the Government and the players to ensure the team qualify for the 2023 AFCON and the 2026 World Cup. Can they achieve that?.
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