One of the beauties of international football is that there is a sense that every dog has its day. At some point, even traditionally unsuccessful national teams will have their time in the sun, and in the current climate one of the African countries looking to shine is Gambia.
The Scorpions have rarely entered the top 100 of the FIFA rankings, currently residing in 166th place, and they have still never qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations. Throughout their history, they have often been in the shadow of the country that geographically surrounds them – Senegal. While Senegal have made waves by becoming the first African country to reach the FIFA World Cup quarter finals, Gambia were forced to look on from the side-lines with their only real contribution at that level being through one of Africa’s greatest referees Bakary Gassama, who officiated Denmark vs Peru at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
This decade has seen more turmoil for Gambia. In 2012 they received a punishment for alleged government interference with international football, while two years later they were sanctioned again for playing overage players in a youth match against Liberia.
So what has changed?
Around the time that Gambia’s CAF ban was lifted, the country underwent a coup d’état which saw their dictator Jammeh removed from power. In the wake of this, there has been a strong sense of positivity which has translated to the football scene. Gambia’s biggest club Banjul United had previously had issues with players leaving the country during continental games, but this seems to be a thing of the past since the coup.
This has not been the only sign of growth in Gambia’s football scene. Previously, their biggest names were plying their trade at club level in MLS, Scandinavia and the lower English leagues, before a trail was blazed most prominently by Modou Barrow who left the Swedish league for Swansea. Despite not being the greatest on the pitch, his mere presence at that level seems to have made clubs from other significant leagues take note and pay attention to Gambian football.
Italian high flyers Atalanta are undergoing possibly the greatest era in the club’s history, and a key feature of their growth has been their use of the youth system. Possibly their best player at Primavera level has been forward Musa Barrow, who is seen as the great hope of Gambian football. Although he is not having the strongest season, he made a big impact in his opening games by getting goal involvements against some of Italy’s biggest clubs such as Lazio, Genoa and Torino. A forward who can play anywhere across the front line, Barrow has shown a great ability to create chances by finding space in the box while also offering a threat by running at defenders. Atalanta’s youth system also boasts young midfielder Ebrima Colley, who has been close to breaking into the senior team recently, as well as Modou Badjie, who is a few years older and currently on loan at Rimini in the third tier.
The defensive line has been produced by a popular route for Gambian players – Scandinavia. Omar Colley is possibly Gambia’s biggest success story at present, having developed in the Finnish and Swedish leagues before moving to Genk where he was part of one of the country’s strongest defensive lines. His form was impressive enough for Sabatini to take him to Sampdoria, and he has slowly but surely worked his way into solidifying himself as a starter in a team which have ambitions of European football under Marco Giampaolo’s guidance. The other big-name defender is Bubacarr Sanneh, who is one step behind Colley in his development having left Danish challengers Midtjylland for Belgium’s most famous club Anderlecht last summer where he became the most expensive defender in the history of the league at 8 million Euros. So far, he has struggled for form making multiple defensive mistakes, but this is partly to be expected for someone who is still only 22 years old and new to a league of that ilk.
In midfield, Gambia are yet to make an impact in the top 5 leagues however they do have a good hope in the shape of Hamza Barry. Playing his football with one of Croatia’s biggest clubs, Hajduk Split, Barry has solidified himself as one of the best midfielders in the country offering tireless work-rate, a strong engine and even a decent goal threat for a relatively defensive midfielder. Watford have also acquired a Gambian youngster in Sulayman Marreh, although the defensive midfielder has been consistently shipped out to different clubs on loan for the last few years including his current home of Eupen in Belgium alongside Tunisia star Youssef Msakni.
As is often the case with African countries, it is in forward areas that Gambia have their biggest strengths. On top of the aforementioned Barrow, there is Lamin Jallow also plying his trade in Italy for Salernitana where he has been somewhat making a name for himself in Serie B. In the French second tier there is Jallow’s namesake at Metz, Ablie Jallow, who joined via the Generation Foot academy in Senegal which has strong ties with Metz having previously unearthed the likes of Sadio Mane, Papiss Cisse, Diafra Sakho and Ismaila Sarr. While Jallow has not made many appearances for the senior team, he appears to be breaking through at the right time with Metz looking very likely to get promoted back to the top flight this season. A story that touched the hearts of many football fans was that of Bakery Jatta, who joined Hamburg having arrived in Germany as a refugee becoming the first refugee to play in the Bundesliga. The 20 year old has two goals and two assists in Hamburg’s first season in the second tier, and before they were relegated while he did not have the end product he did show a lot of promise at such a young age.
The most prolific goalscorer from Gambia is Bubacarr Trawally, who more commonly goes by the nickname of ‘Steve’. The 24-year-old has scored 54 goals in 111 appearances in his time in China, although 17 of these goals were in the second tier. He has now moved on to a new challenge, this time in Saudi Arabia with Al Shabab where they are hoping his goalscoring prowess will get them over the line to qualify for Asian continental competition.
Next month, Gambia will have one of the biggest games in their international football history as they take on Algeria. It will be an extremely tough game for the minnows, and even a win could be futile as they need Benin and Togo to draw in order to have a chance at qualification for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Whether they make it or not, the future looks brighter than ever for Gambia.