A Lion’s Challenge: Senegal’s hunt for African glory

Senegal, the eternal bridesmaids of African football. The Lions of Teranga boast the enviable title of possessing one of Africa’s finest sides at a World Cup, however, they are the only one in that league to have never lifted the AFCON. A country with stars who have lit up the continent like Jules Bocande, El Hadji Diouf, Sadio Mane, Khalilou Fadiga and Papa Bouba Diop surely should have more than runner up finishes to show at Africa’s greatest showpiece. Bouba Diop and El Hadji Diouf finished joint twenty-first in the 2002 Ballon d’Or, Sadio Mane finished fourth in 2019. In fact, the latter duo have won Africa’s Player of the Year gong and alongside Mali, Senegal are the other nation to have multiple player of the year winners but no AFCON titles to show.

FINAL HEARTBREAKS

The heartbreaks of Cairo and Bamako still fresh in mind, both in fortuitous circumstances. A deflected shot and three straight penalty misses after scoring the first two, the last missed by the captain who now sits as gaffer, Aliou Cisse. On both occasions, they were the superior side. In Cairo, they had 62% of the possession, 12 goal attempts and 100 more passes than Algeria. In Bamako, they had dominated for long periods and then let off the hook when Ndiefi missed a gilt-edged opportunity. The stars had seemingly aligned after Pierre Wome missed from the spot, Coly and Fadiga putting them in pole position before the worst happened, Diouf crucially missing before Cisse blew the window fate handed them. You may be forgiven if you think it’s a curse. The last time they achieved the silver medal, it was swiftly followed by a painful but feisty Quarter Final exit at the hands of Tunisia in Rades.

CURSE OF THE HOSTS

Les Lions have an unwelcome record of losing against host nations. Most worrying is that they do it from  positions of control; against Nigeria in 2000, Khalilou Fadiga had handed them the lead before Julius Aghahowa came off the bench to bag a brace that delayed their meeting with Cameroon. In 2004, Jawar Mnari would score against the run of play from Riad Jaziri’s overhead kick. In 2006, Mamadou Niang had leveled things up before Amr Zaki sent the Cairo stadium into pandemonium. Sixteen years prior in Algiers, same story. In the 2015 AFCON in Equatorial Guinea, Moussa Sow’s late strike couldn’t stem the bleeding in a 2-1 defeat, and they finished without a single point. Senegal’s only success against a Host Nation dates back to 1986 against Egypt in Cairo when Thierno Youm netted the winner in the opening fixture. The Mummies need to be appeased.

For perspective, rivals Cameroon have not lost any of their last five clashes against host nations, winning four and drawing one, keeping three clean sheets in the process. Unsurprising they have five AFCONS in the kitty; Nigeria boast two wins and a draw in their last five as well, they’ve won three titles. Ghana have an eighty percent record against hosts, hoisting the trophy against such opponents twice of their four AFCON triumphs. Aliou Cisse, your move.

QUALIFYING JUGGERNAUT

Ferjani Sassi’s late winner for Tunisia in Monastir on October 15, 2014 was the last time Senegal lost a qualification game on the continent. Aliou Cisse remains undefeated since his appointment in March 2015, even at U23 level, he had seemingly proved his mettle, with his unavailability to guide the young lions their bane at the 2015 U23 AFCON Senegal hosted. For him, navigating the oft murky qualification waters are never a problem. They are on their way to Cameroon already. When you boast the array of stars Cisse has, qualification should never be a challenge.

Aliou Cisse

FROM THE ACADEMIES TO GLORY

The Challenge in 2021 is to lift the coveted AFCON trophy. It is every Lions’ dream. It is why Kalidou Koulibaly, a U20 World Cup semi-finalist with France controls the defence, Youssouf Sabaly, a U20 World Cup winner with France starts at Right Back, Lamine Gassama also featured for France Youth National Teams. Salif Sane, Sada Thioub, Mbaye Niang, Alfred N’diaye, Abdou Diallo and Edouard Mendy were all born in France, however, have returned to their roots in pursuit of immortality.

This is no class of the early 2000s their fates aren’t tied. The 2012 Olympics mark a significant turning point. All but three of Joseph Koto’s squad have featured for the national team; Kouyate, Cisse, Mane and Gueye in particular form the spine of Aliou Cisse’s squad. Mane and Gueye emerge from Generation Foot and Diambars, the top two academies in the country. Both have ten players combined in Cisse’s set up despite the heavy French influence.

Proper tutelage, un-negotiable even in the home front, the hallmark of glory ingrained. It is why Senegal’s glory days are near. Joseph Koto, remember him? The 60-year-old now holds the reins of the U20s. They have reached three consecutive FIFA U20 World Cups, reaching the knockouts each time (Semis, Last 16 and Quarters). The mistake of not consolidating on the modest achievements of the 2000s drew Senegal back in their AFCON pursuit, it’s all different now. From the U20 crop; Ibrahima Niane, Amadou Ciss and Dion Lopy are knocking on the door of the senior squad, Krepin Diatta, Ibrahima Ndiaye, Sidy Sarr, Pape Aliou Cisse and Moussa Wague all featured at the last AFCON. Talent is abounding. However, the curse must be broken.

Senegal vs Poland at the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup

The sight of Cameroon will hold memories. Since the 2-nil group stage win in Annaba in 1990, Les Lions Indomitable have proven a stumbling block. Senegal have yet to concede against Cameroon at the AFCON, it could translate to not conceding at the AFCON in Cameroon, a feat only Cameroon have achieved en route to winning the title. Perhaps it could be fate. Zambia triumphed in Gabon, the place of their worst fears, Nigeria did in South Africa in emotional circumstances claiming victory 17 years after failing to defend their crown based on a government order, Algeria secured the bag in Egypt, a decade after stopping the Pharaohs from claiming a World Cup slot, Algeria and Nigeria stood I each other’s way of maiden triumphs. The streets of Dakar remain poignant from Bamako and Cairo, all that could change in Yaounde.