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Gambia football fans get their day in the sun as Scorpions reach CAN finals

·4-min read

Football fans in Gambia were frustrated that they could not watch their national team, the Scorpions, play in Independence Stadium last month because of Covid-19 restrictions. Supporters were also anxious about the selection of players who are currently not linked to any football club. However, the recent controversies have been forgotten as the country secured its first-ever qualification for the final stages of the Cup of African Nations.

Gambian fans couldn’t understand why veteran players not currently tied to professional football clubs were picked for the national team instead of younger players.

Scorpions' captain Pa Modou Jagne has represented the country for over 15 years but has not played club football for some time. He told the Africa Calling podcast that the criticism almost forced him to withdraw from the national team.

"Some months back I already contacted the coach and team manager to tell them that if I don't have a club until up to the match, I am not going to come,” says Jagne.

“But they told me, ‘we need you as a leader, you cannot miss this game, you have to be there, even if you don't play. You have to come because we believe in your leadership and we need that leadership in the camp’" he says.

Captain Jagne however says he was very proud and happy to lead the Gambia squad to CAN qualification, even though the pressure was intense.

"It was not just about not having a club but also playing at home without fans was equally frustrating and I hope the pandemic ends soon so we can have the fans back at the stadium," he adds.

After the Scorpions beat Angola at home with a lone goal from striker Assan Ceesay to confirm their spot in the Total Africa Cup of Nations Cameroon 2022 finals, thousands of fans stormed onto the streets of Banjul to celebrate a moment they've been anticipating for over sixty years, temporarily forgetting the frustration of being barred from the stadium due to coronavirus restrictions.

"The whole country is in jubilant mood and we are excited! I can't express the feelings I'm having! God bless The Gambia," Habib Fall, a Scorpions fan, said while celebrating on the street.

The small West African nation will now experience the feeling of playing in the continental showpiece, although football, and sport in general, has not been the same with all the restrictions.

Gambia's coach Tom Sainfeit says he’s optimistic that they will have the fans back at the stadium to cheer the team on.

"Hopefully we can kick out Covid soon and hopefully we can get the fans back in the stadium, because celebrating the goals, celebrating the victories together with the fans is the most beautiful thing," he says.

Funding issues

The Gambian government has been criticised in the past for the scant funding allocated to the youth and sport ministry in the national budget, so will the CAN qualification mean more investment in football? Sports Minister Bakary Badjie says the government is ready to motivate the team at all cost.

"There is a lot of investment that has been done in football, people look at the budget and sometimes criticise the budget, but budgets are not what you see, there are lots of things that go under the budget,” says Badjie.

“When you read the budget and say, ‘oh six million for sports development’ and you think that is all that is there, no, we are spending almost twenty-two million on this game alone,” he adds.

Despite the minister's affirmation that the government will support the national teams, Lamin Kaba Bajo, president of the Gambia Football Federation (GFF), says financial constraints might be their biggest challenge on the route to the finals in Cameron in 2022. He says the federation appreciates the government's support but it is still less than what they expected.

"I think the federation is still shouldering the bulk of the responsibilities financially and logistically and everything else,” says Bajo.

“We appreciate the contribution of the government, but it’s still not enough -- what they’re doing now is complimenting what GFF is doing. We want it to be the other way round, so the GFF will compliment what the government does," he adds.