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Exclusive: Tom Saintfiet and The Gambia aim to end 36-year wait vs. Algeria

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The Belgian coach has already made history with the tiny Scorpions, and could be on the brink of another great achievement

Tom Saintfiet has already made history with The Gambia since being appointed head coach in July 2018, but the Belgian tactician faces arguably his biggest challenge yet when the Scorpions conclude their Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign against Algeria on Friday.

The Gambia could win and still not qualify for the continental showpiece in Egypt, but at least need to end a 36-year wait for a competitive victory away from home if they’re to stand any hope of progress.

Having already broken new ground, Saintfiet is definitely not ready to accept defeat yet, even against an Algeria side who have never lost in Blida.

“36 years ago, in 1983, that was the last game we won away from home in a competitive game,” Saintfiet told Goal ahead of Friday’s showdown. “That was against Mauritania [in a qualifier for the 1984 Olympics].

“It’ll be a very difficult task to get a victory, but every game has to be played, and we’re going to try to be well-prepared.”

Even if The Gambia end their 36-year wait for a competitive victory away from home, they’d need Benin and Togo—who meet in the other Group D game in Cotonou—to draw, with a win for either side meaning they’d pip the Scorpions.

Algeria lead the pool—on 10 points—heading into the final weekend, with Benin on seven, leaving Togo and The Gambia tied on five.

Despite the immense task ahead of them, Saintfiet is buoyed by The Gambia’s considerable progress to date, with several landmarks having fallen during his tenure.

“In recent months, we’ve already got our first victory in five years, our biggest victory in eight years, and the biggest points return in the last 10 years,” he continued.

“For the first time in history, we can qualify on the last matchday. That has never happened before for Gambian football, so we’re going to try to get a good result.”

The tiny West African nation are ranked 166th in the Fifa world rankings, and 47th among Africa’s teams.

None of the five African teams below them in the ranking are still in the running for Egypt, with only Seychelles (189th) actually reaching the group stage of qualification.

“Even if we do win, we need to count on a draw between Benin and Togo, so even then it wouldn’t be easy to qualify,” Saintfiet continued. “The fact that, on the last day, we’re still in the running is already impressive, and we have a good group, so we’re [confident] for the future.

“This time we’re playing in a very difficult qualifying group, with big African countries, in the future if we play in an easier group—with respect to our opponents—Gambia will, for sure, be at the African championships.
“I’m convinced about that.”

Saintfiet has enjoyed a nomadic managerial career stretching back over 20 years, with the Antwerp native coaching in his homeland, Germany and the Netherlands as well as less heralded environs such as the Faroe Islands, Jordan and Finland.

He’s coached extensively in Africa, taking the reins of the national teams of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Togo, and memorably oversaw Ethiopia’s 2-2 draw against Nigeria during the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.

While he’s already experienced a lot in the African game, few challenges have appeared more daunting than the showdown in Algeria, particularly considering The Gambia’s swathe of absentees.

“It’s sad that we’re missing about six of our first eleven from the last months,” the Belgian concluded, “so the replacements have to stand up and hopefully can prove they’re also ready to play on this level.

“We’ll go and see, and try to do our best to represent our country.”

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