Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast) (AFP) – Tiny Gambia were one of the stories of the last Africa Cup of Nations as they reached the quarter-finals, but coach Tom Saintfiet admits repeating that feat this time could be beyond them.
“Have we progressed? No, we have lost a lot of players,” the Belgian told AFP as he prepared his side for an intriguing opening game of this year’s tournament on Monday against Senegal, their neighbours and the defending champions.
“Some of my starting players have abandoned football, while others have been without a club for a long time,” added Saintfiet, who has spent 18 of his 50 years coaching in Africa.
He worked at club level in Ivory Coast and notably with Namibia and Zimbabwe before taking over the Scorpions in 2018.
“Expectations are higher now, but the quality is lower if I am being honest, and our group is harder. So it is going to be very difficult.”
After taking on Sadio Mane’s Senegal, Gambia play AFCON specialists Cameroon and Guinea with prolific forward Serhou Guirassy.
They have come here off the back of defeats to Burundi (3-2) and Ivory Coast (2-0) in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup in November.
“That was the first time since I came here we had lost two games in a week and the first time in three and a half years in which we had conceded three goals in a game.”
Despite that, he acknowledges that the people of the tiny West African nation “are asking for miracles” from the team after they reached the last eight in Cameroon in 2022 in their first ever appearance at the AFCON.
It was “an exceptional” performance, admitted Saintfiet, whose team were beaten 2-0 by the hosts in the quarter-finals.
“Being realistic, we should have been happy at reaching the quarter-finals, but we felt strong and we wanted to stay to the end.”
Before that tournament he evoked the memory of two surprise former winners of the European Championship to show his players what could be achieved.
“I said to my players, ‘We are here to make history’. We could be champions of Africa, like Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004,” he said.
The Gambian team and staff were given a huge scare as they set off for their second appearance at the Cup of Nations.
Their plane turned around just nine minutes into the flight and returned to Gambian capital Banjul.
The reason was a lack of oxygen and cabin pressure.
“We were scared we were going to die, the whole team, if the flight had gone on for another 30 minutes we would all have been dead,” Saintfiet said.
“It is a bit traumatic but it has brought us all closer together.”
Despite the difficulties, Saintfiet has not ruled out causing some surprises at this AFCON, citing the support of the country’s football federation and a backroom staff with whom he says he has become good friends.
He still has good players at his disposal too, including central defensive leader Omar Colley, France-based midfielder Ablie Jallow and the striker Musa Barrow.
“It is important that those three are all on form,” added the coach.