Former Free State Stars head coach Tom Saintfiet, now in charge of The Gambia national team admits they probably couldn’t get a tougher draw for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations.
The Gambia, who have been the surprise package of the continent since his arrival five years ago reached the quarter-finals of the competition in Cameroon two years ago.
Now they are in Group C with the Indomitable Lions, champions Senegal and Guinea, who they beat in the last-16 in their historic run in their debut showpiece.
“We are clearly the group of death, we don’t need to lie, two teams who played in the last World Cup, Senegal and Cameroon,” Santfiet said at the AFCON draw in Abidjan.
“Senegal is the current African champions, Cameroon played the semi-finals in the last AFCON, Guinea reached the second round but we beat them to reach the quarter-final, so it’s the only group with four teams who played past group stages in the last AFCON. So it’s an incredibly difficult group and clearly, Senegal and Cameroon are the big favourites.”
The 50-year-old Belgian who was nominated for the CAF Coach of the Year Award spent a brief stint in the Premier Soccer League with Ea Lla Koto in 2014 before venturing into jobs with Togo, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta and then the West Africans who have a population of just 2.64-million.
“When I took over in 2018, Gambia was 172nd on the FIFA World ranking, had not won a competitive match for five years, so when I arrived the last competitive win was against Tanzania in September 2013,” Santfiet explained about their meteoric rise.
“I said to the President and Vice-President I’m here to qualify and they looked at me and said coach calm down, let’s try to win a game in my first five games we almost qualified between Benin, Togo and Algeria and then the next time we qualified in a group with Gabon, DR Congo and Angola.
“We played AFCON, got seven points in the group stage, beat Guinea and reached the quarter-final, so it’s going very fast, we have good players, good development in the country, clubs are working hard, federation working very hard.
“I’m supported by a fantastic group of people in the federation staff and brilliant players – on the other hand, we’re limited in choice compared to bigger nations and we have to understand that countries like Cameroon, Senegal and Guinea are still far ahead of us.
“We can surprise them maybe but they are the favourites, I would have preferred to be in an easier group than this, but we have to take it, we have to prepare for this and let’s hope, in a group where nobody expected something from us – we can surprise once more as the underdog.”
The 2023 AFCON will kick off on 13 January until 11 February 2024 – see all groups here after the draw took place in Abidjan on Thursday evening.