National Team Coach Calls For AFCON Qualifiers Postponement

The Gambia head coach Tom Saintfiet wants this month’s 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Gabon postponed as he cannot call up seven key Italy-based players due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Italy – the worst affected country by the coronavirus pandemic outside China – announced a lockdown of the entire country on Monday.

With seven of The Gambia’s players – including defender and captain Omar Colley, who plays for Sampdoria – based with Italian clubs, and thus now inaccessible, Saintfiet says it would be too unfair to play the qualifiers.

On Monday, FIFA announced that upcoming Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup had been postponed but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) said it had no immediate plans to postpone, cancel or hold matches behind closed doors although it did not rule out the measures in the future. 

“I think it would be very wise for CAF to follow FIFA’s guidelines – what they did in Asia – to postpone the games for March and June,” said Saintfiet.

“We cannot expect to play qualification games when some countries can’t use many of their best players – not because of injuries or personal reasons, but because of an international problem,” Saintfiet told BBC Sport Africa.

“Now we are talking about Italy, but there are also other European countries, like France and even Belgium where coronavirus is increasing a lot.

“We don’t know how soon it will go. Maybe in one week’s time, there will be parts of France also in quarantine and many African players who play in France will also be having consequences from that.”

The Gambia are due to play in Gabon on 26 March and then at home against the same opposition four days later.

The fixtures are part of a series of Nations Cup qualifiers across Africa in the final week of March, with 48 games set to take place in nearly 50 countries.

The Scorpions’ boss said he believes it would be possible to postpone the Nations Cup qualifiers with minimal impact on the African football calendar.

“Maybe we can postpone only the March games for now – as soon as possible – so that people don’t have extra costs, and also have time to plan,” he explained. “We still have dates [available].

“Normally in June, there is only one qualification game, so we could easily play two in June, and two in September, and then the four last Afcon qualifiers would be finished on the same date that they would have finished before.

“So if you look to the health of the public, of African people, of our players and staff members – around travelling, taking risks, importing the virus from Europe, and maybe also having the top players not travel, which could have consequences on the performances of teams, and could be an unfair battle – I think it would be very correct, fair and professional to decide as soon as possible to postpone the games.”