“Everyone thought I was mad,” says Tom Saintfiet of his decision to take on the job of coaching Gambia, and yet the Belgian has led the little west African nation to the last 16 of the Cup of Nations.
They play Guinea in the Cameroonian city of Bafoussam on Monday after qualifying from their group against the odds, beating Mauritania and former champions Tunisia and drawing with Mali.
It is a remarkable achievement for the Scorpions after they reached the AFCON for the very first time under Saintfiet, the 48-year-old whose CV reveals him to be a veritable globetrotter, including a short spell as coach of the Malta national team.
He has had spells with seven different African national teams as well as with Yemen, Trinidad and Tobago and Malta, not to mention Qatar’s Under-17 side and a stint in the Faroe Islands.
“I don’t really like the word globetrotter. I have gone around the world to be a coach rather than worked as a coach just to travel the world,” he tells AFP.
Saintfiet began coaching aged 24 with a lower-league team in Belgium, having given up playing after rupturing his cruciate knee ligaments no fewer than six times.
Half his life has been spent going from one country to the next.
“I’ve had lots of adventures but the best story is this one, at the AFCON with Gambia. I am so pleased and so proud of my team,” he says.
The tiny country which hugs the banks of the Gambia River is surrounded — with the exception of a small Atlantic coastline — by Senegal, the continent’s top-ranked national team.
‘People thought I was mad’
Gambia, meanwhile, had never even made it to the tournament before.
They won only once in qualifying for the 2019 finals but the expansion of the Cup of Nations to 24 teams has helped, along with the influence of Saintfiet.
“When I arrived in July 2018, Gambia hadn’t won a qualifier in five years, since beating Tanzania 2-0 in September 2013,” he recalls.
“There was no hope, the team was 172nd in the FIFA rankings. I said I had come to qualify Gambia and people thought I was mad.
“I travelled around Europe, at my own expense, to go and convince players with dual nationality to represent us.
“I know our federation has limited means, so I can either stay at home or I can put my own investment into my team. Money has never been my motivation.”
His first game was against Algeria in September 2018, when the Scorpions claimed a 1-1 draw before a raucous crowd.
“There were 45,000 people in the Independence Stadium, but the capacity is only 25,000.
“There were fans hanging off the floodlight pylons, climbing up the scoreboard, everywhere. The game was an hour and a half late kicking off, and we held Riyad Mahrez and all these great players to a draw.”
They fell short in that qualifying campaign but Saintfiet’s side qualified for this edition in Cameroon by topping a group featuring Gabon, DR Congo and Angola.
He has a squad made up largely of players based in Europe, some of whom were born there, including Ibou Touray from Liverpool and Saidy Janko from Switzerland.
Then there are stars like winger Ablie Jallow, scorer of two superb goals in the group stage, and Musa Barrow of Bologna in Serie A.
But Saintfiet has had to mould them together into a successful team.
“I have changed the strategy, the discipline, on the field and off it, and I am backed by a very good federation,” he says.
“My ambition is to go to the World Cup, but I am a realist and I know I am not going to manage teams like Belgium, France or Argentina.”
That might not happen, but if his team get the better of Guinea, a dream quarter-final against hosts Cameroon is a possibility.