By Sulayman Bah
The debate is on and sides have been taken. The topic boils around the future of Tom Saintfiet, a certain Belgian coach who’d just been tested by Gambia. So much was said in the lead up to his unveiling once it became public knowledge that he’d gotten picked for the managerial job and that terms have been finalised. Pundits ruminated about his statistics, his nomadic demeanour, globetrotting and selling his services even to countries that are rarely any footballing hotbeds, Malta for example. But with all his journeyman adventure, he sure gained experience from it especially in the Africa having stayed on the continent for over a decade –the more reason suggesting why he got a straight nod for the Scorpions job.
Coaches have timelines to meet and his was to qualify Gambia. He was assigned to effect task of spurring a Gambian team that has never, in its history, neared the corridors of the Total Africa Cup of Nations despite being to two youth World Cups.
The setout objective was to be delivered in five matches after the Scorpions were already owned by Benin 1-0 in its opening match.
Tom, prior to this, had already gotten sacked by Malta after he was mentioned as one of gaffers being evaluated by the Cameroon Normalisation Committee before Clarence Seedorf won over the football movers and shakers of the Central African nation.
Additionally, Gambia’s coaching job is by nature a risky affair and the FA has history of pulling the trigger on its managers. From German Antoine Hey, Belgian Paul Put, Italian Luciano Mancini were all fired with the exception of Spaniard Jose Martinez who resigned on medical grounds even though Swiss-born Raoul Savoy is adamant he wasn’t touched by Gambia Football House’s electric broom.
With these records, Tom must have known of GFF’s allergy for failing managers but he still applied for the vacancy and accepted, when offered it after scrutiny.
Over the past decade, eleven Africa Cup of Nations tournaments have been staged by the Confederation of African Football (caf) in varying venues including the soon-to-be held one in Egypt, with Gambia reaching none of the finals. Failure to qualify for the continental showpiece has always been the advanced reason to explain coaches’ sackings. This cliché has led some questioning credentials of the previous tacticians while others argue the Scorpions managerial seat is a cursed portfolio, giving over dozen coaches have been shoved out the door from the year 2000.
The gospel truth is, managers have limited time to prove or stamp their foot print on the team.
From the five foreign managers hired from 2007-2019, Paul Put has been the sole man accorded adequate time, with his contract extended by government in the aftermath of the 2008 Afcon qualifiers which again ended in another catalogue of fiasco.
In every senior qualification round, the team is ridden with either a set of new players or the coach is new to the starlets in which case, test games are the only means the gaffer could separate the chaff from the wind.
Footing the bills of test matches for the squad cost millions, funds of which are usually never forthcoming from the Sports ministry whose cries of lack of money for such undertakings is very apparent. And if, at all, test games are arranged, it’s either with an understrength Central African Republic or an overrated often hastily assembled Moroccan home-based national team.
In a nutshell, the coach sees very minimal of his players and is forced to use the qualifiers proper as exhibition encounters –the very difference between Gambia and other countries with serious football ambition.
There is argument that retired stars Pa Dembo Touray, Ebou Sillah, Edrissa Sonko or Njogu Demba could better fathom the players when appointed to shepherd the set up like Senegal has with Aliou Cisse. The fact in this is, success is not guaranteed by copying every of another nation’s mannerisms.
The French-speaking West African outfit had the solid foundation in place with Orange Company being the Taranga Lions’ perpetual sponsors and so aren’t feeling the annoying basics we are battling.
Knowing all these, Saintfiet accepted challenge of leading Gambia. Player revolt confronted him in his first assignment against Algeria with up to three key players refusing to turn up over the snub dealt to striker Bubacarr Trawally then plying his trade in China.
Confidence in the team hit unbelievably low with the revolt by key figures of the squad then considered the last straw. However, Tom rose to the billing and delivered with an understrength experimental formation devoid of creativity and came out of it not quite unscathed –on account the opposition earned a point –but with his respect intact. It ended a draw as Algeria were left panicking. This had hope in the foreign gaffer by now bubbling to some height before another stalemate with Togo away in faraway Lome had one-time disgruntled home fans rallying fully behind as belief in the team took an upward trajectory.
Then Togo returned visit in Banjul and got away with an ambush, the Belgian’s first defeat. This setback was shoved down the shadows with the 3-1 win over Benin –Gambia’s first qualifier victory since Tanzania in 2011.
He still managed to steal a point with a wholly questionable formation of nine defenders in the first period in Algiers. It’s also relevant to point out, all this was achieved with a very meticulous approach to defensive football.
The evident suggest with ample time to his side and trial matches accorded to the team by government and the FA against credible football oppositions, the Belgian could strike up the familiarity with his charges and, in essence, the football fluidity that could engineer, at last, an Africa Cup of Nations qualification berth.