Euro 2016 has gone but leaves us with a lot of talking points especially here in The Gambia, a country that continues to build castles in the air when it comes to sports especially football.
Gambian football fans, coaches and administrators have over the years cited Senegal, Cape Verde, Mauritania and recently Guinea Bissau, Wales and Iceland, as nations that can inspire the scorpions to sparkle the light at senior level football. But, what is certain is that, hardly do they pay attention to the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation process put in place by these countries for the historic achievements they have attained.
Excuse me, but I cannot move on with this piece without hailing the national television, GRTS and Africell for giving Gambians an uninterrupted coverage coupled with great analysis from veteran and upcoming coaches and football pundits. Even though I was aghast to see that GRTS sports presenters, Baboucarr Senghore, Momodou S Jallow, Teneng Gitteh and the ever agile Famara Fofana step off for Musa Sise of Africell who I must admit did not falter any bit. Gosh! It was the first time I watched a championship with great satisfaction. Satisfied simply because the timing of the matches weren’t odd and the coverage wasn’t interrupted by anything, not even politics and the championship came at a time I was off university. So I had time to watch virtually all matches except for few when NAWEC chose to deny me electricity, something I frowned about for nothing because I wasn’t astonished that some days my side will be left blackout so I won’t be able to watch.
Enough of that now and to the reason why I set out to write this piece taking cue of how minors performed in the championship. Team spirit and commitment overruling names. These were things nations like The Gambia should take from the just ended European football championship held in France. I and many others were worried if the France championship can produce any memory both on and off the pitch knowing that the France was still mourning the November 15, stadium attack that took over a hundred lives away. Kudos to France for increasing and tightening security because there was no blast that leaves people injured talkless of dying.
Apart from the security threats some critiques thought increasing the teams from 16 to 24 would massively affect the quality of the tournament but those skeptics were proven wrong where teamwork overpowered names and new stars born. Most football pundits in The Gambia and around the globe tipped Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, and possibly England to center the ball in the semifinals because these nations have big name players. They were shocked in the group stage and in the round of sixteen. Imagine out of their list, only France and Germany went past the quarterfinal stage. The rest packed their bags when the boys were preparing to go home leaving adults to continue having fun. Spain, Belgium and England got the biggest shock.
Portugal who are the new champions of Europe crawled their way to become champions. Very few pundits booked their name before and during the championship because they struggled in the group and knockout stages. They weren’t convincing at all despite having one of the world’s best, Christiano Ronaldo and the tournament’s best young player in Renato Sanches. Portuguese fans, I am not taking anything off your victory. It is well deserved.
Teams that came into the championship as underdogs ended up shocking the world surpassing the so-called big teams. Teams like Iceland and Wales coming in for the first time punched above their weight just like Cape Verde did in the 2013, AFCON. Northern Ireland, Albania and Slovakia who were also first timers in the competition didn’t perform badly. In fact they all took home a lot of positive. Iceland and Wales couldn’t follow the Leicester City fairytale because they had they efforts and energy cut out in the quarter finals. Poland, Hungary and Republic of Ireland also deserved a great mention because they also were not counted by bookmakers.
Uruguay did it in the world stage, and now Iceland and Wales in Europe and three years ago, Cape Verde did it in Africa and recently, Guinea Bissau also defied the odds to book a ticket to their maiden AFCON championship. The question now is when shall The Gambia book a place to its maiden AFCON championship citing Iceland and Wales’s successes in the Euro.
Gambians home and abroad have had their say on the positives from the Euro. Notable among them are journalists, coaches, pundits and people who put their energy and money into football.
What others think
Sang Ndong, head coach of scorpions said, “Iceland and Wales are two countries that got a lot in common with The Gambia. Size and population, cannot stop you to be a big footballing nation. All that needs to be done is proper prioritization of planning and structures. Above all, get players into bigger leagues.”
Mamadi Ceesay, Gambian resident in Norway and the man behind Brufut Uinted’s success in the second division said, “Everything is possible in football. Always choose the best team and players that are available at all times and make sure the players are more interested in playing than being on social media. Look at Iceland, they are discipline and are willing to die for the national jersey. They are united from the coach to the players to the fans.
Modou Jagne, Ex Gambian international and TV pundit said, there are so many positive that the Gambia can take, but from the just ended Euro but to him, “the most important thing is to have an action plan and realistic goals.”
Abdoulie Bah, Gambian sports journalists resident in America said, “Firstly, Giant-killing exploits of Hungary, Iceland and Wales: The Cinderella teams have shown us that mediocre sides can achieve and win the hearts of football fans all over the world. Secondly, Leadership: The Gambia national team lacks the leadership charisma of Cristiano Ronaldo. He is hungry, outspoken, achiever, dependable, tenacious and a great motivator. Gambia national team captains/ key players have some of these attributes but fall short in many others.”
Famara Fofana, news editor at the Gambia Radio and Television Services, “Portugal's clinching of the Euro, coming in to the tournament with the underdog tag yet they proved to the whole world that with a sense of belief allied with a good team spirits, barriers can be conquered, tells a lot. Despite not a financially healthy nation like The Gambia, they proved the doubters wrong.”
Bunja Arsenal Kebbeh, a Gambian football pundit resident in England said, “In the first instance with determination and proper planning, there is no small footballing nation. Iceland with a population of 330,000 people edging out the best teams in Europe says it all. Wales, semifinalist in the first major tournament and Northern Ireland can all motivate any nation with a big heart. If we look around Africa, the positives are written all over the place. Neighbours Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde have showed nothing is impossible by dumping bigger nations for their maiden AFCON. These were all possible because of hard work, proper planning and putting the right people in the right place. Gone are days of favoritism in sports as the wrong people chosen always fail to deliver.”
Alieu Ceesay, Senior Sports Reporter and secretary general, Sports Journalists Association of The Gambia said, “The positive to be drawn from the tournament is that the size of a country does not matter in present day football, looking at a nation like Iceland eliminating favorite and much endowed England in the tournament. It all boils down to determination and the will to win and that was exactly what made the Icelandic outstanding. I hope Gambia footballers and aspiring ones will draw inspiration from the young players who did well for their nations in the Euro. I hope the attention given to the tournament will equally be given go the local tournaments and star players our country produce.”
Buba Jallow Fallaboweh, a Gambian sports blogger resident in Sweden said, “It is evident that size doesn't matter. Take for example of Iceland with a population of 330.000 people. That doesn’t stop them from reaching the quarter finals. They believed in themselves and worked as a team. Gambian Footballers needs to play with confidence and have team spirit even if playing under pressure.”
Lamin B Darboe, resident in Jarra and the man behind the late Lamin Kinteh Memorial Tournament, said. “Well I think we should look up to countries like Iceland who have a population of just 330,000 and they turn out to be the surprise package in the Euro. The Gambia should take an inspiration from that and realize that size doesn't matter when it comes to football. Wales too surprised a lot of people by putting up a remarkable performance throughout. Basically those are some of the positives the Gambia can take from the Euro.”
Kari Metsala, a Finnish FA intermediary who follows Gambian football said, “Minors can expose themselves in today's competitions. Margins getting narrower. Team play accompanied with tactical analysis tailored specifically for each individual team pay off. No team was succeeding only by attacking or defending. Balance is everything. All this can develop Gambia.”
Mustapha Manneh known to many as Kanjura, a resident of Kartong and a football follower said, “Self-confident. The underdog surprised everyone because they believe that they can do it. Iceland played well in the tournament as underdog. Portugal who struggle to qualify to the round of sixteen lifted the trophy. Hunger. The hunger to win shown by the Wales and Icelandic players. Most of those players are not known by many sport lovers but they delivered beyond expectation. Self-confident and hunger I think is lacking in our footballers.”
Sarjo S Jammeh, sport reporter at West Coast Radio said, “Good case studies are right under our noses here. Cape Verde, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau are here for us. I think is high time the Federation seek for their blue prints and learn from them rather than singing rebranding n rebuilding. Don't be surprise if south Sudan of all countries qualify to AFCON before The Gambia. We are still putting our house in order.”
The Icelandic model of developing talent against all odds
Research shows that it has taken Iceland close to 20years to achieve what they garnered today. Gambians have begun using their achievements in the Euros, as a barometer but to use them as a yardstick, The Gambia must put up a long term inclusive programme for players and coaches like the Viking nation did. This is without doubt going to be costly but above all rewarding in the near future.
Icelandic league was merely played in four months, May until September (two less than the Gambians league), leaving seven months of the year for pre-season. This situation leaves much to be desired, but the unforgiving climate of this nearly uninhabitable rock does not provide many alternatives. This was especially the case as clubs practised, and even played, on gravel pitches, something similar to The Gambia but how, then, did Icelandic football develop from these harsh conditions?
Having recognised the problem, the Icelandic FA started a revolutionary process of improving the facilities available for the nation’s footballers. From 2002, six full-size indoor football halls have been built around the country (roughly one pitch per 50,000 inhabitants; 360 pitches would need to be built in The Gambia for a comparable figure), as well as over 20 artificial pitches and more than 130 mini-pitches for schools and communities, allowing football to become a year-round sport and accessible to all. So in a nutshell, the infrastructure must be put in place by the municipal councils through the government.
In most countries these sorts of projects are privately owned and operated, and pitches are therefore rented out to sporting clubs, usually pricing out most youth clubs. What is unique in Iceland, and I believe can be possible in The Gambia, is that these facilities should be available to every man, woman and child in the country. These facilities should be owned by municipalities who in turn allow the clubs to use the facilities, provided that they allow every member of that municipality to make full use of the pitches and keep them maintained when not in use by the clubs.
Icelandic football has been built upon this philosophy of inclusiveness; which is a philosophy that aims at providing quality education and frameworks for as many coaches and players as possible. They created a coach education training programme up to (UEFA A and B license training, as well as a Pro License in cooperation with the English FA) which has been made available to all coaches in the country at the lowest possible cost. This sort of partnership is also possible with the Scottish FA through Adventure Kicks who initiated a link between SFA and the GFF. This will create competition which in turn provides quality. With a pool of fully qualified coaches, spurred on by a hype, will create a certain pressure in the footballing communities to not be left behind.
Today, 70% of coaches in Iceland have a UEFA B license, and around 30% have UEFA A, which is unprecedented in Europe.
Sigurður Ragnar Eyjólfsson, the former Technical Director of the Icelandic FA, was quoted as saying that Iceland was successful in keeping the players for a long time, playing in tournaments such as the U17 and U21 and even at that level they don’t settle for anything else than a win and going to a tournament. “When they step onto the pitch, they find it completely reasonable to beat the bigger sides,” he said. This is also an expensive thing to do but rewarding in the long run.
So, is The Gambia ready to go this far?