Gambia head coach Tom Saintfiet reflects on his meteoric progress with the African minnows and how the Super Eagles can become African champions again, in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD
What’s the experience like coaching in Africa?
I started coaching in Africa in 2008 with Namibia and after that I coached the national teams of Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Malawi, Togo and Gambia plus clubs in South Africa and Tanzania. I also coached national teams in Asia, Europe and the CONCACAF region. But for me, working in Africa was working in a continent I dreamt of as a young man and coach. I was buying magazines like Afrique Football and African Soccer in the 1990s and 2000s. It was a dream for me to work in Africa, and when the dream came true, I was satisfied to work in a continent with so much football quality, with some much strong, technical, skilful and disciplined players. In a continent where so many people love football, it is an honour to work and represent African countries, to work with so much quality and work for so many passionate fans. I enjoy every second of it, till now.
You have coached eight teams in Africa, which job would you say is the most challenging?
Every job is challenging and nice. Many times I got appointed to where things went wrong before. In Namibia, they lost 11 out of 12 games before my arrival and I changed their fortune and moved them upward on the FIFA rankings, starting with winning a lot of games. The same thing happened in Ethiopia, who lost 4-0 to Nigeria and 4-1 to Guinea. When I came in, we drew 2-2 with Nigeria in 2011 in the qualifiers in Addis Ababa and we beat Madagascar 4-2. In Togo, we were on the way to qualifying for the AFCON and needed four points against Liberia and Djibouti to qualify. So, all these tasks were very exciting. Also, coaching Young Africans in Tanzania and winning the CECAFA Cup and the Champions League for East and Central Africa was a big deal for me. With Gambia, there was no competitive match for five years before my arrival, when I arrived I changed everything with wins over Algeria, Morocco and Guinea and we won the first competitive away game for Gambia and the results are still coming. The rest is just history and in every country, I enjoyed the task and the challenge. I also enjoyed the relationship with the board members, players and fans.
Did you regret not getting the Nigeria job then, considering the talents at their disposal, after you applied?
To be honest, it was always my dream and it is always my dream to work with the Super Eagles. For me, they are probably the strongest football nation in Africa with so much quality in the local league and in Europe. What Morocco did, Nigeria could have done many times, reaching the semi-finals and even more at the World Cup. If they had the right coaching strategy and right tactics, they would have achieved that. That’s the reason I was interested in the Nigerian job in 2010, in 2014 and 2018 but it didn’t come and hopefully, it happens in the future. It’s always a dream and I’m convinced I’m the coach who can guide Nigeria to that exceptional success both at the AFCON and the World Cup.
As a coach, I have the ambition to work with the best countries on the biggest stages. I want to go to the World Cup, I always said I want to be the first coach who guides an African team to the semi-final. Walid Regragrui did that already with Morocco and I’m convinced I could have done it in 2018 with Nigeria and maybe in 2022 because Cameroon and Tunisia were interested but they went with a local coach. It’s a huge disappointment because it will be a huge honour to guide a nation like Nigeria. I know Nigerians can’t be happy with the (Eagles) performances in the last AFCON and World Cup, and even not qualifying is not the level of Nigeria.
How would you rate the current Super Eagles?
The current Super Eagles are one of the strongest in history, in my eyes. Starting from the 1990s till now, the Super Eagles were always a team and probably one of the best in African football and top in world football. But in this current team, there are so many young talents in different leagues and it’s quite easy like that to make a team that will compete with the best in Africa. Nigeria has to go to the AFCON with only one ambition and that’s to be champions. Anything lesser doesn’t show the true quality of this team. Even in previous years, I expected something like that from Nigeria. The last AFCON was a big shock for me, so, I think the team has always had new talents, variations, quality and possibilities from different positions. And I have to say Nigeria is one of the favorites to the 2023 AFCON in Ivory Coast and after that, they have to develop into a team who can go to the World Cup and write history thereby copying Morocco and even doing more.
What do you think must be done to ensure the Eagles soar again?
Some African countries have a limited amount of good players because of their size, but Nigeria is such a big football country with a high population and many players playing in Europe and quality Nigerian Professional Football League. So, you have more choices, some teams have no professionals overseas, they only focus on the local league. Some teams have not so much in the local league but have professionals abroad, but Nigeria has qualities playing all over the globe. The quality is there, now it’s up to the coaching staff to find the right strategy and mentality for these players to believe in their chances and be ready to write history. It’s a tactical thing but it’s also a psychological thing and it has to be done.
The Gambia is currently placed third in Group G of their AFCON qualification. How optimistic are you that the Scorpions will qualify for the 2024 AFCON tourney?
It will be a miracle again if we can qualify for the AFCON. We are currently under 20 in the world, we moved six places in March, but we have to play pre-qualification for this AFCON. We had to play Chad, away and home, before we were placed in a group where we have two nations who are better ranked and experienced than us. Mali is one of the major countries in Africa and they are the strongest and favorites in our group. And also Congo Brazzaville has bigger history and is better ranked than us and even South Sudan are not easy opponents, they have improved a lot. We are at the moment in a good position to qualify again, but the only problem is that we can’t play our home matches at home. We play the first in Senegal and another in Morocco. But we have faced twice the tough nation Mali and we have an away match against South Sudan and home match against Congo Brazzaville. It depends on Mali taking some points off Congo Brazzaville and we win against South Sudan. It’s possible, but it will be for me a miracle. If we can qualify two times consecutively for a country of about two million people, without a professional local league and few players in Europe, it will be amazing. The expectations are there after reaching the quarter-finals at the last AFCON, but it’s not something easy and examples are there. At the last AFCON, even South Africa did not qualify. So, it’s not given for a country like The Gambia to qualify but it will be unique to qualify twice in a row after a history of not qualifying in 60 years. We are on track and confident ahead of the last two matches.
Nigeria currently have in their ranks Victor Osimhen – one of the world’s best strikers. Do you think the Eagles get the best out of him when he plays at the national level compared to his form at Napoli?
You can’t compare national team and club level. At the club you are fine week in and week out and if a player scores 27 goals for his club, and then probably doesn’t score in 20 other games, it might be okay. In a national team, there are two matches every few months and the team has to be ready. Naturally, as a coach, you chose your tactics, according to the quality of your players. It will be unfair to judge, but naturally, Nigeria has one of the best strikers in the world currently and every African country will want to have Victor as their striker. So, you have to choose your strategy to optimise the quality of your players and that’s what we do. We play certain formations to make it easy for them to succeed. I’m not in the position to judge but Victor is a world-class striker and he can be a great asset if used correctly.
Does that mean he isn’t used correctly?
If you don’t get results, then you have to try another way.
How exciting has your stay in Gambia been?
Five years in Gambia already and I’m happy there. I have proven that I can guide a team to higher heights. Our sixth spot in AFCON as debutants ahead of countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia and many others show certain things. I’m happy where I am but as an ambitious coach, you always want to aim higher with the biggest teams.
You married an African, what informed your choice?
I and my wife met in Namibia in 2008, when I was the national team coach there. We’ve been married since 2013 with a beautiful daughter together. We are happy together and she’s been a big support in my life and it makes my life complete doing the job I love and having the lady I want and also having a beautiful daughter, so I can’t complain.