AFCON Gambia: ‘We can be proud of our performance’ – coach Saintfiet

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon

By Alexis Billebault
Posted on Friday, 4 February 2022 12:32

Africa Cup of Nations - Quarter Final - Gambia v Cameroon
Quarter Final - Gambia v Cameroon - Stade de Japoma, Douala, Cameroon - January 29, 2022 Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet before the match REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The Gambia participated in the first finals of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in their history, reaching the quarterfinals. They were beaten but with not without a fight, by Cameroon (0-2). Tom Saintfiet, the Belgian coach of the Scorpions, spoke about their surprising journey and the experience of the Gambian team in the country of the Indomitable Lions.

Like Madagascar in 2019 in Egypt, Gambia stretched its stay in Cameroon until the quarterfinals, imitating the Malagasy side who participated in their own first AFCON. Tom Saintfiet (48), coach of the Scorpions since July 2018, returned to Belgium on Wednesday.

He did not pass through Banjul, where the festivities have been postponed… partly because of the demands of European clubs on the players.

Ahead of his return, we caught up with the Gambian coach.

Why couldn’t you make a trip to Banjul?

Tom Saintfiet: We played on Saturday in Douala against Cameroon. Some players left Cameroon quickly to return to Europe where their clubs were waiting for them. Others, as well as members of the staff and myself, waited until Tuesday for a flight to Gambia. As I had no news, I decided to return to Belgium by taking a plane on Wednesday night.

And it was only after I had made my decision that I knew that something had finally been organised to go via Banjul, but for me it was too late. A few players and staff members took the flight, but there were no celebrations on arrival because it was dark.

Is there anything planned for the return match against Chad in March in the preliminary round of the 2023 African Cup of Nations?

To date, I don’t think so. The head of state (Adama Barrow) thanked the team for their performance. That is all. We know of course that the Gambian people celebrated our performance a great deal, that people are very proud of us.

We would have liked to spend some time in Gambia to celebrate this great achievement with the people, but it was not possible. The players are expected in Europe by their clubs. It’s a pity, but that’s how it is.

Your team’s performance was a surprise. Did you expect Gambia to reach the quarter-finals?

We have been doing well against big African teams for several years.

We drew twice against Algeria, we beat Guinea, Morocco, and to qualify for this AFCON, we finished first in our group, ahead of Gabon, DR Congo and Angola. We don’t have any stars, and if we want to compete with the best, we have to be very disciplined and rigorous. This is what has enabled us to achieve this excellent result, which the players can be proud of.

What did you do to boost the motivation of your players?

I emphasised our results in recent years. I showed videos of Denmark and Greece, European champions in 1992 and 2004, and Zambia, African champions in 2012, when nobody expected them.

To the press, before the African Cup of Nations, I said that we were there to progress, to try to do well. To my players, in my speeches, I told them that we had come to Cameroon to win the AFCON! We didn’t succeed, but reaching the quarter-finals was a great joy. We can be proud of our performance.

The hardest part is now beginning perhaps…

Yes, I said that this qualification should not be a one-shot deal. I said that Gambia must continue to work to be a regular participant in the final phase of the AFCON.

We must keep this state of mind, this discipline. I don’t have the squad of Cameroon, Algeria or Côte d’Ivoire. I do have players who play in Italy, Switzerland, Portugal or Belgium. But others are in Division 4 in England or even in D5 in Switzerland. Our success is based on our state of mind, discipline and solidarity.

In March, we will play Chad twice in the preliminary round of the 2023 African Cup of Nations, and that will be a good test. We will have to be very serious if we want to confirm this quarter-final in Cameroon.

In the first round, your team was based in Limbe, in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, where separatists are in armed conflict with the government. All four teams (Gambia, Mali, Tunisia and Mauritania) reportedly received threats before the tournament. Did you fear for your safety?

The instructions were very strict: we were not allowed to leave our hotel, except to go to training sessions and matches!

We were struck by the number of soldiers and police deployed everywhere. Around our hotel, at the stadium, on the roads, and when we went to train, there were a lot of law enforcement officers, including near the houses near the training ground. When the players arrived in Limbe, they were obviously a bit worried because they are not used to it. I myself have worked in many African countries and the atmosphere was more relaxed. But there were no problems, the security was very good.

Before your round of 16 match against Guinea (1-0), you criticised certain aspects of the organisation. Your federation tempered your comments and CAF said that you were not telling the truth…

I mentioned our hotel in Bafoussam. Several players and staff members, including myself, were sick the night before the match. The Cape Verdians, who stayed in the same hotel, also had problems.

I just said that the food was not good, and that the players had to be six per accommodation – it was more like a small flat than a hotel room – but with two beds per room, only one bathroom and one toilet. If one player is infected with Covid, all the others can be.

All I’m asking is that all the teams at an African Cup of Nations finals be accommodated in hotels of the same standard (at the African Cup of Nations, the host country allocates the hotels to the delegations), nothing more…

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

AFCON Africa Cup of Nations: Results and Fixtures list

The full programme of all the matches for the 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations, which takes place in Cameroon from 9 January to 6 February 2022. Plus all the scores. Updated daily.

AFCON: Can Samuel Chukwueze help Nigeria beat Egypt?

Nigeria faces Egypt and the mighty Mo Salah in today's clash in the Africa Cup of Nations at 5pm Cameroon time. But Nigeria are no slouches in attack themselves; forward Samuel Chukwueze has been in form for both Villarreal and Nigeria.

Africa Cup of Nations a chance for Biya to unite Cameroon

Cameroon has not hosted the Africa Cup of Nations since the 1972. Optimists hope the goodwill generated by the tournament can be used to foster national unity, with the south west of the country still mired in violence.

Africa Cup of Nations: Andre Onana, Sebastien Haller, Bamba Dieng… Six players to watch

Here are six particularly promising players to watch closely during the 2022 African Cup of Nations: André Onana (Cameroon), Sébastien Haller (Côte d'Ivoire), Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia), Bamba Dieng (Senegal), Saïd Benrahma (Algeria), Ayoub El Kaabi (Morocco).

CAN: Senegal’s Ismaïla Sarr is at the heart of a tug of war between Aliou Cissé and Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri, coach of the British club Watford, is still refusing to allow his Senegalese striker Ismaïla Sarr to play in the African Cup of Nations, which opens on 9 January in Cameroon. This attitude has been denounced by Aliou Cissé, the coach of the "Lions de la Teranga", but also by several high-profile African football players, including Samuel Eto'o.

Football: Eto’o angered about possible delay of AFCON

As reports claiming that the AFCON will be postponed circulate, Samuel Eto'o has expressed his exasperation. The former international football star has just been elected head of the Cameroon Football Federation and says he will “devote all his energy to ensuring that this African Cup of Nations is held.”

Football: Should the African Cup of Nations be held every four years?

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) supports FIFA's plan to hold the World Cup every two years, which could affect - for better or worse - how often the African Cup of Nations takes place.

Football: Cameroon starts countdown to Africa Cup of Nations 2021

Cameroon will be hosting the next Africa Cup of Nations, which is due to kick-off in January 2022.

AFCON Côte d’Ivoire: Why Sebastien Haller preferred the Elephants to France

Sebastien Haller, the Franco-Ivorian striker from Ajax Amsterdam was eligible for selection for the French national team. But in 2020, he has chosen to wear the Ivorian jersey.

AFCON in Cameroon: Why the stadiums remain empty

The exceptional atmosphere of the opening match of the African Cup of Nations has died down and the host country is struggling to fill its stands. Several obstacles have dampened the enthusiasm of the fans...

AFCON: Mali’s Adama Traoré – The TP Mazembe trampoline

Adama Traore of Mali, who now plays in Moldova, made his name during his long stay at TP Mazembe, from 2013 to 2018. The striker is also one of the big guns of his national team, which faces Mauritania on Sunday at the AFCON Africa Cup of Nations, held in Cameroon.

AFCON Cameroon: Can Vincent Aboubakar be a star at home?

Cameroon's striker Vincent Aboubakar, who scored both goals in the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations against Burkina Faso (2-1), does not have the same aura as his illustrious predecessors Milla, Omam-Biyik, Mboma or Eto'o.

AFCON Ghana look to Partey after gloomy start

The national outcry at Ghana’s poor start, amplified by the 1-1 draw with Gabon on Friday night, has become entangled with a sense that the Black Stars' most expensive player, Thomas Partey, is once again failing to make the expected impact.

AFCON Algeria in must-win match against Côte d’Ivoire

Algeria will have to win against Côte d'Ivoire on Thursday in Douala if they want to extend their run in Cameroon, where they finished last in the group with just one point after two matches. If not, it will imitate the 1992 team, eliminated in the first round, two years after winning the CAN...

AFCON: Cameroon’s Patrick Mboma says ‘The Indomitable Lions are a pleasure to watch!’

Former captain of the Indomitable Lions (56 caps, 33 goals) and two times winner of the CAN in 2000 and 2002, Patrick Mboma is following with interest the performance of his former team.

Cameroon: What will happen to the stadiums after the AFCON?

Who will finance the maintenance of the stadiums once Cameroon's African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is over? Headed by Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the powerful secretary-general of the presidency, the task force in charge of organising the African Cup of Nations has sent Paul Biya to begin a project for the management of sports infrastructures once the competition is over.

AFCON: Ibrahim Sangaré tipped to push Côte d’Ivoire to victory

With Ghana, Algeria and Nigeria all out of the tournament, and Senegal having stuttered unconvincingly in the group phase, Côte D’Ivoire seemed to be the most balanced of the bigger teams initially tipped to succeed. Much of that has to do with the midfield mix offered by Franck Kessie, Jean Michael Seri and – the least experienced of the trio – Ibrahim Sangaré.

AFCON: Cameroon, Gambia surprise, Morocco vs Egypt in quarter-finals

The round of 16 of the 2021 African Cup of Nations saw the favourites Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire fail to qualify, while Cameroon, Morocco and Senegal all qualified with difficulty. Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, for their part, eliminated Guinea and Mali.

AFCON Can Sadio Mané fire Senegal to the top?

Senegal's squad is slowly but surely making their way to the last four of the 2021 AFCON African Cup of Nations. They will first have to beat the surprisingly tough Equatorial Guinea in the quarter finals in Yaounde on Sunday 30 January.

AFCON: Salah inspires Egypt into semi-final showdown

Two decisive moments from Mohamed Salah were enough to propel Egypt into their 16th AFCON semi-final and send Morocco reeling on Sunday.

AFCON Senegal/Burkina Faso: Sarr VS Koffi, the battle of the semi-final

Brilliant and several times decisive since the beginning of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the Burkina Faso goalkeeper Hervé Koffi will have a lot of work to do Wednesday evening against the Senegalese striker. And in particular Ismaïla Sarr, who scored when coming on as a substitute against Equatorial Guinea.

AFCON Cameroon/Egypt: Semi-final risks spiralling into a stagnant midfield battle

There is a risk of tonight’s semi-final shown between AFCON's two most successful teams degenerating into a stagnant midfield battle. If it does, much will depend on whether Mohamed Elneny or Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa gains the upper hand.

AFCON: Senegal wins against Egypt in penalty shootout

After losing two finals, in 2002 and 2019, the Lions of Teranga became the African champions for the first time in their history, defeating the Pharaohs on penalties (4-2) following a 0-0 draw.

Sadio Mané, the decisive player in Senegal’s victory

On Sunday night, Senegal became African champions for the first time in their history after they defeated Egypt (0-0, 4-2 on aggregate). Sadio Mané, who was voted best player of the AFCON, played a key role. The striker of the Lions of Teranga lived up to his potential in Cameroon.