Musa Juwara, Musa Barrow spearheading Gambia's World Cup dream - Saintfiet
Ed Dove
July 18, 2020
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Bologna heroes Musa Juwara and Musa Barrow are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to young, emerging Gambian talent, according to their national team coach, Tom Saintfiet, who believes the duo can be part of a generation that qualify the Scorpions for their first World Cup.

Juwara and Barrow made international headlines when they both scored in Bologna's come-from-behind victory over Serie A title-hopefuls Internazionale, an unlikely impact for two players from a nation firmly entrenched outside the top 150 in the FIFA world rankings.

Juwara's debut Serie A goal was particularly notable considering the player's remarkable rise to the top; the 18-year-old, whose journey is emblematic of several young Gambian players, arrived in Italy only four years ago, having been orphaned in his homeland and travelling as an unaccompanied minor to Sicily on a migrant boat from North Africa.

"You need to be very strong to cope with this situation, to leave home, to travel to Libya, to travel to Italy by boat; you need to be very strong mentally for that," Saintfiet told ESPN. "I would not advise other players to do it, as there are easier ways to get to Europe, but I have huge respect for the way he went.

"We have a few boys who did the same, like Ebrima Darboe at AS Roma, like Kalifa Manneh at Catania, who had the same route, and it's absolutely fantastic that they can now play professional football at this level in such a strong league as Italy.

"I don't know if they became stronger because of this trip, or whether they made the trip because they were strong already, but it shows their determination to succeed."

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Juwara worked his way up through the Italian youth footballing structure after arriving in Sicily, moving in 2017 from lower-league Virtus Avigliano to Chievo, where he made his Serie A debut two years later.

"I met him in January when I was in Italy to talk to both [Juwara and Barrow], and he gave me a very mature impression," Saintfiet said.

"He's a very motivated guy and has a good background in his youth, when he was already wanted by Juventus.

"He was good in the Primavera squad of Chievo Verona last year, made his Serie A debut at 17, and with these signs it's clear that the boy has a lot of talent."

Juwara impressed in an eight-minute cameo against Juve, in late June, before being given a 25-minute run-out as Bologna looked to turn around their fortunes against Inter.

"Naturally you always need a little bit of luck, and you need the opportunity to score the goal, but his movement, his speed, his skills are quality, and he also has the mental determination to make it to the top," Saintfiet said.

"I'm not surprised, when I look at the quality of these boys.

"Barrow played seven or eight national team matches and made his debut with me; Juwara was on the list for the March qualifiers which were postponed due to COVID-19, so we know both are very talented.

"It was fantastic to see them performing on this level against such an opponent."

Juwara and Barrow headline a growing list of Gambian players in European leagues, with defender Omar Colley of Sampdoria also impressing admirers in Serie A, and Saintfiet can also draw upon talent from Switzerland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe beyond.

Some are dual-nationals -- born in European countries to parents who emigrated -- while others, like Barrow, were scouted by agents or scouts earlier in their career and were moved out of Gambia.

Others, like Juwara, Darboe and Manneh, are refugees, who left the West African country in search of better fortunes overseas, and have had to overcome various obstacles after arriving in Europe.

"I think every refugee has problems to adapt to a new country, although when you are a good player it's easier to adapt because you're more likeable to people," Saintfiet said.

"If people see you can play at a good level then they will like you to join their club, and you make friends easier, so it could be to their advantage.

"However, it's not an easy task.

"Many Gambians left Gambia in recent years -- we have over 100 players in Europe -- but every player who comes from one continent to another will face difficulties.

"It doesn't matter if you're a refugee or not, but it's still a different language, a different culture, and you have to prove yourself -- sometimes double -- but football is a dream for many, and if you want to achieve this dream, you have to battle against these difficulties."

Under Saintfiet, and boosted by European exports, Gambia have achieved some significant landmarks in recent years, notably winning their first match in five years and registering the team's greatest points return in a qualifying campaign in a decade.

They drew home and away with Algeria in 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualification, beat Herve Renard's Morocco away in a friendly in June 2019, and defeated Angola 3-1 in Luanda in their opening AFCON 2021 Group D match -- their first competitive away victory since a triumph over Mauritania in a 1984 Olympic qualifier.

With that March 1983 qualifier being an under-23 fixture, the triumph over Angola didn't just end a 36-year wait for an away qualifying triumph but was Gambia's first away qualifying victory at senior level in history.

"[Our squad has] different types of football players," Saintfiet said.

"Refugees, but also those who were born in Europe and are dual citizens who got their football development in Europe, and also those who are developed in Gambia and are scouted very early by clubs in Europe.

"That mixture of players with different backgrounds makes this team so strong, and many of them are very young -- 18, 19, 20 -- and have a big progression [ahead of them].

"There's also a group of players even younger than that; the youngest I've scouted is 13, and I have some who are ready to leave for European clubs in England and Switzerland.

"If they decide to play for the Gambia national team, the coming 10 years are very bright for Gambian football."

Boosted by the increasing prominence of Gambian players across Europe, Saintfiet believes the Scorpions could be on the brink of history.

They currently lead their qualifying group for the coming Africa Cup of Nations tournament -- now postponed to January 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic -- having taken four points from their opening two matches, and the Belgian coach is confident the current crop could be the first Gambians to reach a major tournament.

"When I arrived in Gambia we were 172nd in the FIFA world rankings, now we're 159," the...
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