Coach Tom Saintfiet's team had to start from the qualifications’ preliminary rounds, as they were among the lowest ranked teams in the continent.
The West Africans were pitted against Djibouti to battle for a place in the qualifiers proper. The Gambia had to dig deep to make it through as they needed penalties to triumph over Djibouti after a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Goalkeeper Modou Jobe saved two penalties as the Scorpions sail through to the qualifiers’ group stage.
"It was a very difficult match for us," Jobe told CAFOnline.com. "We were playing for the first time in many years as the favorites and that put the team under pressure because everyone expected us to win."
The former Real de Banjul and Gambia Armed Forces shot stopper was the tie’s hero, as his brilliant saves denied Djibouti a memorable victory in Djibouti City before he stopped two spot kicks to win the tie in Banjul.
The Gambia had a very though draw on paper as they were drawn against three much more highly rated teams Gabon, Angola and DR Congo.
The Scorpions opened their account with an away trip to Angola's Palancas Negras in Luanda in November 2019. They came from a goal down to beat Angola 3-1 with a brace from Assan Ceesay and a rare Sulayman Marreh effort to top Group D.
They followed that with an entertaining 2-2 stalemate against DR Congo at home as they twice came from behind to share the points.
The Coronavirus pandemic forced the qualifiers to be postponed from March 2020 to November of the same year.
Gabon survived a late scare to beat the Gambia 2-1 in Franceville with goals from Bouanga and talisman Pierre Emeric Aubameyang condemning Baboucarr Jobe's late strike to a consolation.
The Scorpions recovered in the reverse fixture to beat Panthers with the same margin as second half strikes from Modou Barrow and Musa Barrow to send them to the summit of the group with seven points.
They confirmed their place in Cameroon on the penultimate round with a narrow 1-0 victory over Angola in Bakau. Assan Ceesay scored on the hour mark after Ablie Jallow's vernomos effort was fumbled by the keeper towards Ceesay who tapped into an unguarded goal.
With Gabon's 3-0 thrashing of DR Congo in Franceville meant both teams qualified for the tournament, Gambia lost to DR Congo in the last match as did Gabon against Angola.
The Scorpions achieved the unthinkable, as they were the only West African team that never qualified for the biannual tournament.
"It is an incredible thing that's difficult to explain, because for 69 years (since the formation of the football association) we never qualified for a senior national team major tournament. So, this is a historic qualification," said forward Assan Ceesay.
"I'm so lucky to be the one who scored the goal that qualified The Gambia to the Total Africa Cup of Nations for the first time."
Ceesay has been the Scorpions goal magnet, scoring most of the goals in the last three years, and he said the goal against Angola will forever remain with him.
"The image of me scoring the goal against Angola will forever remain in my mind," the former Gamtel forward told CAFOnline.com.
"When I look at the image it feels like I scored right now and it is a feeling that will live with me forever, because it is an unforgettable moment.
"What the goal brought to the Gambian people and myself is just incredible, and I will never forget it for the rest of my life."
The Gambia's qualification was masterminded the much-travelled Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet. The former Togo, Zimbabwe and Namibia boss took over the job on a short-term basis in June 2018.
Saintfiet transformed the Scorpions into a competitive team that were confident to face some of the bigger nations in Africa.
"I'm very proud to be the Gambia coach," an emotional Saintfiet told CAFOnline.com. "I’m also very proud of the players who achieved this and became the best players in Gambian football history.
"We knew it was possible, this was the ambition two and a half years ago when we started. We had a plan going forward, and now we're there. But it is just the first step and we want more."
Saintfiet's team is a blend of youth and experience with the likes of Musa Barrow, Bubacarr Trawally and Sulayman Marreh among the younger generation.
"The AFCON qualification means the world to me because as a footballer growing up, I’ve always wanted to see our country play in the elite of African senior team football, which is the AFCON. To be part of the group that wrote history in getting us to our first AFCON is quite a blessing," said UAE based forward Trawally.
"For me, it means that a part of my dream in playing in elite senior team football against other ‘big’ nations has come true and it’s something that I’ll forever cherish in my life and be happy with in my CV."
The Scorpions performance in this campaign has been attributed to many things, amongst which is how the team is taking care of and better travelling arrangements.
"There has been a lot of improvements in the preparations, the support from our people, the readiness and hunger from players," noted Sulayman Marreh.
"The difference is that we have a young talented group and a lot of us are competing at the highest level, and also the motivation the team is getting from the public and government," added Musa Barrow.
The Scorpions travelled with a chartered flight during the last two international windows and that helped the team bounding.
"The fact that the organisation has changed a lot in terms of how we travel for the matches by travelling as a group," Trawally added.
"Before, we would spend more than two days on the journey to join the national team and we’ll arrive tired. But nowadays we converge at one destination and then fly home for the matches which help even in team building."
Gambia's historic qualification adds a new feather to the cap of captain Pa Modou Jagne who has represented the “Smiling Coast of Africa” - as the country is affectionately called - at every level.
The 31-year-old who's currently without a club represented the Gambia at the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups and won bronze at the Africa U-20 Cup of Nations, Congo 2007.
"Qualifying for the Total Africa Cup of Nations is a proud moment for every Gambian especially the team, coaching staff, the football federation and the government, players and the entire nation," Jagne said.
"We've been dreaming for this, because we were born hearing that The Gambia never qualified and we're very lucky to be part of the team that made history to qualify the country to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time," he concluded.