After a fantastic run at the African Cup of Nations 2021, Gambia's Scorpions commence its campaign for the 2023 AFCON with a victory over the Bright Stars of South Sudan at Lat-Dior stadium in Thiès, Senegal, on Saturday night.
Abdul Jallow's strike 45 minutes into the game was enough to secure the Scorpions a win.
“We felt pressure because we want to qualify for the next AFCON, we don't want to be like other teams who will make the first impression and wait for years before they could qualify again,” says Gambia's new Captain Omar Colley.
Colley took the captain's role from retired captain Pa Modou Jagne shortly after CAN21 led the Gambian team to their first victory.
As many supporters were celebrating the Victory Coach Tom Saintfiet says it is early to call his side the favourite.
“This is a good first win but we have to respect our opponents and not see ourselves as favourite because on paper Mali and Congo are the favourites,” said Saintfiet after the game, referring to their next match with Congo next week.
This is only the first out of six games, where The Scorpions will be going head-to-head against Mali, one of the favourites.
South Sudan, which has never qualified for the continental showpiece, is hoping to make it to the tournament despite the defeat on Saturday night.
“When we were coming into this game we knew it was going to be a tough game, everyone is saying Mali and Congo are the favourites but for me, I believe the Gambia is one of the favourites," said South Sudan coach Stefano Cusin.
"We will go back and see what we can get from Mali-- hopefully a win," he added.
Banjul stadium barred by CAF
The Scorpions couldn't play at home following a CAF decision to bar Bakau independent stadium from hosting the match as it was “not fit” to hold international games. The stadium is the only international facility in Gambia, built in 1983, and has never undergone any major maintenance.
Some 3,000 diehard Scorpions fans travelled to Senegal to watch their team play, but were frustrated that they had to travel seven hours to watch their team play.
“It's a shame that we had to travel for almost seven hours to watch a game that was supposed to be played at our home ground, and I have to travel back for 7 hours again to get home,” said Jakaria, who spoke to RFI after the game.
He celebrated their win, but admitted it was bittersweet.
“Look at how our players performed at the AFCON,” he said, referring to the Scorpions moving all the way into the quarter-finals, even though it was their first time in the continent-wide tournament.
“If we are a serious country then it's time that they should think about investing more in sports,” he added.
Fan and a social media influencer Tida Jobe, who staged the “bring back our boy” protest when the Gambian team was delayed in Cameroon after their exit in the AFCON 2021 quarter-finals shared her frustration.
“We all came here because our players are really trying and each time we watched them the make us proud, but the authorities are not helping,” she said.
“Imagine if we had played this game at home and the support these boys would have received! We will never relent on speaking out and making sure they have better facilities,” she added.
The Gambian team will travel out to Congo and play their second game of the qualifiers on 8 June.
The football federation and Gambian government are hopeful that the team will play its next home game against Mali on 27 September in Banjul. However, fans are not convinced that this is achievable considering the state of the stadium.