Switzerland-born Real Valladolid defender Saidy Janko says The Gambia’s qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations had a significant impact on his decision to represent the Scorpions.
The marauding full-back made his international debut in September in a friendly against Sierra Leone, after joining up with his new team-mates for the first time that month.
“I’m not going to lie, [Afcon] made it a lot easier – but the coach has been talking to me over the last two years,” the former Manchester United youngster told BBC Sport Africa.
“I was already leaning towards coming even before the last call-up, but now it was without a doubt: ‘I have to do this.’
“I had to do it for my dad, as well for my dad’s family, myself and the team. If I can help to achieve something at the tournament, it would be great.”
Choosing The Gambia after Swiss wait
Scorpions coach Tom Saintfiet has been busy scouting players of Gambian descent to add to his squad before the country’s first-ever appearance at the Nations Cup.
The west Africans have been drawn in Group F alongside 2004 champions Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania for the tournament, which begins in Cameroon on 9 January.
“I’m 26, so it’s an amazing opportunity,” Janko said. “After all these years, to qualify, for such a small country, is outstanding.”
Janko, born in Switzerland to a Gambian father and an Italian mother, has only been to The Gambia once before – in 2000.
“My father has his family over there and he always said: ‘It’s your decision if you play for Switzerland or The Gambia.’
“Now is the right moment to choose Gambia. I’m very close with my father and I talked to him about my decision, and he supports me.”
He represented Switzerland at junior level but was unable to achieve his aim of becoming a full international.
“I grew up in Switzerland so it was goal of mine to play for the senior team,” he explained.
“After several years and competing with the best, I was never called up. It was a disappointment for me and my family but it was their decision.
“Maybe it was the best for me so I can represent The Gambia.”
Mainstay at Ronaldo’s Real Valladolid
Janko struggled to establish himself at his previous clubs, which include Celtic and St Etienne, but has been a mainstay at Valladolid since his switch from FC Porto in January 2020.
He made 19 La Liga appearances last season, which ended in relegation to the Spanish second tier.
“I had a really good year after my injury, when I first joined Valladolid, I almost played all the games and I played really well,” he recalled.
“Unfortunately we went down and that was huge for me mentally, and for the whole squad, because with [former Brazil striker] Ronaldo as our president we had high hopes.
“We wanted to maybe come close to the European spots. But now we have to deal with the second tier and do our best to get promoted and play in La Liga again.”
Brazil legend Ronaldo, who bought a controlling stake in Valladolid in 2018, played “a big part” in Janko’s move from Porto.
“After they scouted me, he knew someone on the Porto board and said to him: ‘Can you make it happen?'” Janko said.
“For a legend like Ronaldo to want me at their club is amazing. Every time he is at the training ground or stadium, it gives all the players a boost.”
After the disappointment of relegation from La Liga, Janko stayed with the club despite interest from elsewhere.
“At this stage I don’t want to rush into another transfer just because we’re in the second division,” he said. “The opposite – I want to challenge myself with something different, playing to go up. It’s the first time for me as well and I am happy with my decision.”
A life-changing move
Janko signed for Manchester United in 2013 from FC Zurich after being spotted by the Premier League giants at a youth tournament.
He was named United’s reserve team player of the year in 2014 and made his debut against MK Dons under Louis van Gaal that August.
“It was a life-changing decision for me but if Manchester United come calling, you don’t think twice,” Janko said.
“I was sad to leave home but I was thrilled to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, so the transition was pretty smooth. I got my grind on from the first day and it was really a great experience.
“At a club like United, it’s always difficult as a young player – especially if you’re a 17-year-old – to get a lot of playing time because they have a lot of superstars who need to be playing.
“At that time it was the first year after Sir Alex Ferguson left so there was a lot of pressure on David Moyes and I can understand he couldn’t really give the young ones a lot of chances.
“I think if the results were a little bit better, I would have had more playing time.
“Then there was a regime change. Van Gaal came, it was a little bit the same situation; he needed points and couldn’t allow himself to play with young players.
“That’s not an excuse, because he gave me my debut and I’m forever grateful for that – but it’s really difficult to get a chance in the team.”
“At that time I felt it was the right moment because I felt I didn’t get enough opportunities,” he said.
“I wasn’t complaining. I see players like [Angel] Di Maria and [Wayne] Rooney and of course they have to play, so I understood. For me it was the moment to move on. I need playing time, so that was the main reason why I left.”