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Saintfeit upbeat over scorpions’ Afcon 2021 qualification chances

Apr 27, 2020, 2:28 PM

The Gambia Scorpions national team coach Tom Saintfeit has expressed optimism about the Scorpions chances of qualifying for its first African Cup of Nations appearance in 2021 in Cameroon.

The Belgian coach made the bold remarks during a live video interview on Star TV Sports Bantaba programme with Mbaye Camara, where he also admitted that there is a degree of nervousness about the team’s qualification chances due to the long wait for the qualifying games because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Coach Saintfiet added that he is optimistic that the team can take off from where they left off and secure their place in next AFCON.

“We are a bit nervous for the fact that since November we played fantastic games and we are leading in our group and now we have to wait four to five months for our next game, but we are well prepared and we believe in our chances to have a positive result in Gabon,” he told the Sports Bantaba show.

“We knew if we were to win both games against Gabon, we would’ve qualified by now. And on the other hand if we had four points we could have qualified against Angola in June at home, and we were all preparing for this just like all the fans in the Gambia and I hope this is just a delay for our celebration, but later this year in 2020 we can all celebrate the qualification for first time in history.

“We have a fantastic team that we are building with the Federation for 2 years now and everything is going fine and let’s hope now covid-19 will not disturb us to make our dream come true.

“It is now very important for Gambian people to respect the rules to be discipline and stay at home and wash their hands and we hope the covid-19 virus disappear from the world soon so that we can get back to football and get the Scorpions qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in history.

The 47-year-old coach also elaborated on the rationale behind his call for an immediate cancellation of the qualifiers back in March this year due to the Coronavirus outbreak, just weeks before the Scorpions were due to play Gabon in a double-legged qualifier on March 26th and the 30th, which were later cancelled following the suspension of all football activities by the African Football Governing Body (CAF).

“At that moment in time, it was a very bad situation for us because we have seven (7) of our players playing in Italy who were not allowed to leave their teams - players like Omar Colley, Musa Barrow, Lamin Jallow and Ebrima Colley,” said the Belgian.

 “These players were locked down in Italy and couldn’t leave, so for us it was important we didn’t play, plus the health risk of spreading the virus by travelling around Africa. But now we are eager to play, we are waiting for the time we can play. I think June will not be possible because leagues are still not on, but let’s hope September, October.”

“We need two dates for the four games to be played, so when we can play in September, October or November, at least two of these three months, then we can finish our qualification.”

Saintfeit also believed that CAF can use similar strategies by giving the green light for the resumption of the local leagues just like UEFA have done with some of the European leagues, allowing them to resume matches although behind closed doors. This he said will allow players to get back to playing and then the AFCON Qualifiers can resume at least by September.

But again he has ruled out the possibility of the qualifiers resuming before then, citing the fact that most airports and airline companies are still closed, which combined with the fact that a lot of the teams will be relying on their players playing in Europe and other parts of the World, whom he said without regular football may not be fit to play qualifying matches in June or July.

 On the suggestion of an ultimate cancellation of the 2021 African Cup of Nations, which is among many other scenarios currently being touted as possible outcomes likely to be announced by CAF including the possibility of also playing qualifying games behind closed doors without fans, Mr Saintfeit said it will be very unfair on the teams to cancel the competition in general, as some teams have invested a lot of resources and time hitherto.

However, the Belgian coach agreed that it may be prudent to consider playing games behind closed doors if push comes shove, which will paved the way for the tournament to be played in January 2021 instead of the summer 2021 because of fixture congestion

“The thing is there are not much tournaments generally. I know that FIFA suggest not to play any national team matches this year in 2020, and to postpone everything for a later date, but the problem is if you want to play the tournament in next June or July next year there will be a lot of competitions including the European Championship which will be played in the summer, and the Gold CONCACAF Gold Cup.”

“And also in 2021, March is the only FIFA date to play qualification games before the tournament and we need at least two dates, because we have four games to be played so if you want to play the qualification games and the situation is not that good and behind the closed doors is almost the only solution it will be very sad it will be very sad to play without the fans because we like the support of the fans. But the most important thing is that we can qualify and we can play in the tournament.”

He added that it will be very sad if they’re to cancel or suspend the qualifiers, adding that because all the teams who are already in the tournament have already wasted a lot of time and energy.

The Gambian coach also suggested the possibility of allowing the two top teams in the current qualifier table standings to have automatic qualifications to the competition, giving the scenario in Holland as an example, where the Dutch FA have suspended the football League and have decided not to award the league title to any of the teams, even though Ajax Amsterdam are currently the league leaders, but they have instead decided that they and the team in second will be allowed automatic qualification to the UEFA Champions League next season whilst the third, fourth and fifth placed teams will be allowed to join the Europa League Cup.

 “Yesterday in Holland, they decided to suspend the league and wouldn’t give the championship to the number one team. Ajax Amsterdam are number one in the league, but they will not be crowned as champions, but on the other side they will have the champions League ticket with the number two. The number three, four and five will play in the Europa League Cup.”

“So even if the league was not finished and some of the teams have played less matches, Holland have decided to stop the league and use the current rankings of the teams for a place in the European competitions next year. So this is possible. If it happens in the European leagues it is also possible in Africa.”

However, Saintfeit agreed that this may be in Gambia’s favour but also acknowledged there are some big teams outside the scope in their respective groups and this, he added may make it difficult to implement the option, with both Egypt and Ivory Coast sitting outside the top two in their groups.

“Naturally this is in our advantage. Earlier I checked, only two big nations are not in number one or two in their group, which is Egypt and Ivory Coast and those have lots of power in African football and that could be a problem.”

By Omar Jatta 

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