Tuesday, March 28

Tom Saintfiet, the ‘plumber’ who makes Gambia dream

After working the world map from top to bottom, the smallest country in Africa is the one who is giving the greatest glory to Tom Saint Fiet. Gambia, a strip of land crammed into the middle of Senegal with just over two million inhabitants, is the feeling of selection tournament that is disputed these days in Cameroon, and Saintfiet (Mol, Belgium, 1973), the inducer of such a phenomenon. Only in dreams could the confrontation this Saturday (5:00 p.m., available live on Youtube) in quarter finals between the Gambians and the hosts, but it is very real.

The string of places where this corpulent man with an air of Professor Calculus has served is impressive: Finland, the Faroe Islands, Qatar, Germany, the Netherlands, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Togo, Bangladesh, Yemen, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta and, since 2018, Gambia.

The country of One by one –the most famous Gambian footballer, triumphant in Sevilla almost half a century ago, who died two years ago and is always remembered–lives ecstatic days. Never before had their team qualified for the African Cup and in their first participation they have progressed to the quarterfinals, after a group stage in which they beat Mauritania (1-0) and Tunisia (1-0) and tied against Mali (1-1). In the round of 16 they got rid of Guinea Conakry on Monday (1-0).

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With such a battered passport, it goes without saying that the notebook of this Kapuscinski from the benches brimming with annotations from all tenors. For his achievements he has been called “the saint”, “the messiah” or, more with his feet on the ground, “the plumber”, given its ability to plug water leaks in minor and capsizing equipment. But he has also been through his troubles, like when he escaped from Zimbabwe hidden in the trunk of a car headed for South Africa with the police hot on his heels to arrest him because he lacked a work permit.

Polyglot, generous and “good person”, according to most of those who have crossed his path, six ligament operations pushed him to the bench when he was only 24 years old. He had always been fascinated by Africa and its football, so his professional destiny was written. After much jogging, in the summer of 2018 he received the call from Gambia, which at that time it took five years without winning an official match, sunk at the bottom of the FIFA ranking.

The center of his mission was to make a pilgrimage through Europe in search of selectable footballers, sons of Gambian emigrants scattered in minor teams throughout the continent. For example the goalkeeper, Babucarr Gaye, who plays in the fourth division of Germany (and was key in saving a penalty against Tunisia), or the side Saidy Janko of Valladolid born in Germany and Switzerland respectively. The extreme Ablie Jallow, scorer of the winning goal against Tunisia, belongs to Seraing, penultimate in the Belgian league, and muse barrow, whose goal gave victory against Guinea in the round of 16, became Bologna’s first Gambian to reach Calcio.

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Also in Italy you earn your bread Ebrima Darboe, whose vital vicissitudes embodies the reality of millions of young Africans. At the age of 14, he left Gambia with Europe between his eyebrows, but on the way he ended up in the hands of a Libyan mafia of human traffickers. He fled and embarked for Sicily, mainland at last. When he arrived he weighed 50 kilos (he measures 1.80); Today he fulfills his dream in Roma and in the national team.

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In front of world stars like you’re wrong man The Mahrez, The Gambia cannot present big names. In the campus that Saintfiet has taken to Cameroon there modest pawns from 15 different leagues. The so-called ‘gamescorpions‘ He doesn’t give much joy (defense and counterattack), but the Belgian has instilled order, competitiveness and a pride in them turns the capital, Banjul, upside downon game days. “You are not just making history in The Gambia, you are making history all over the world,” he told them after Monday’s win. They almost liked those words as well as the $10,000 per head bonus the federation promised them for success.

Saintfiet is beginning to be believed now. Because when he came into office five years ago and said “I’m here to classify Gambia” everyone thought that ‘plumber’ they had hired was a little crazy.


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