Douala (AFP) – Musa Barrow could be forgiven for seeing himself as the superstar in tiny Gambia as the country’s football team prepare for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final.

The 23-year-old forward plays regularly in Serie A and is fresh from scoring the goal that took the Scorpions into the last eight and a tie against hosts Cameroon in Douala, but his humility shines through.

“Some might say I am one of the big players in this team but I don’t see myself as a big player. I see myself as equal to everyone. You have to stay humble and help others,” he tells AFP at the team’s base in Cameroon’s economic capital.

“Even if you are a big player you have to earn your place and give everything.

“It is our first time in the AFCON. Who knows when we will come back again? So I have to live and enjoy this moment.”

Barrow’s superb goal clinched a 1-0 win for Gambia over Guinea in the last 16 to set up a date with the Indomitable Lions, but even before that this Cup of Nations had been an extraordinary success for Tom Saintfiet’s team.

The west African nation of 2.5 million people which hugs the Gambia river is the smallest country on the African mainland.

The Scorpions had never come close to qualifying for a major tournament before, and yet they made it through their group by beating Mauritania and Tunisia either side of a draw with Mali.

Barrow coolly converted a last-minute penalty to secure a point against Mali and sent stunning free-kicks off the woodwork in that game and against Tunisia.

Needless to say the team are well aware of the impact their run is having back home.

“After the game my big brother called me and you could see all the people outside celebrating,” Barrow says.

“Everyone is happy back home. It is a small nation. We love football. People learn football from the street so coming to this AFCON, reaching this stage is a big improvement and it is going to take the Gambian name to higher heights.”

– Italian connection –

Barrow is one of a handful of Gambian players based in Italy, having been at Atalanta before joining Bologna in January 2020.

Each has his own story. The 20-year-old midfielder Ebrima Darboe is now playing under Jose Mourinho at Roma having travelled alone to Libya aged 15 before a perilous boat journey over the Mediterranean.

As for Barrow, the boy from Banjul was still a teenager when he was given the opportunity by Atalanta to move to Bergamo.

“My Mum, who is a teacher, didn’t allow me to travel but eventually I got the chance to go to study and then have trials at Atalanta.

“They liked me and so I had a chance to become a professional player. Then you have education and you have football and you have to drop education for football, but I am happy that it worked out for me.”

He has been a revelation at Bologna since joining in January 2020 and netting nine goals in his first half-season in Serie A.

A further eight goals followed last season and five more so far in this campaign, and Barrow is flourishing there under the management of Sinisa Mihajlovic.

“Mihajlovic played a huge part in my career, so I am very happy and I can’t thank him enough. 

“Like every player you want to reach a higher stage of football. Playing in the Champions League, playing in bigger leagues, but it depends on the hard work you put in.”

First of all, though, it is Cameroon on Saturday, and a Gambia win would be one of the all-time great AFCON shocks.

“We have nothing to lose but they are the host nation. If they lose it is going to be a big disaster for them.”