Twenty years ago, Senegal’s golden generation of players, including ex-Liverpool star, El-Hadji Diouf, lost the Africa Cup of Nations crown to Cameroon. Aliou Cisse, who now coaches the team, missed the decisive kick in the penalty shootout as Cameroon won a second consecutive AFCON trophy in Mali.
Months later, the Teranga Lions bounced back from that heartbreaking defeat to stun France at the 2002 World Cup, beating the then-holders by a lone goal in their first game. Led by the iconic Bruno Metsu, they raced to the quarter-final of the Korea/Japan tournament but a ‘golden goal’ in the last eight saw them crash out to Turkey in their first World Cup outing. Cisse was the captain of that golden generation that took the world by storm in the early 2000s.
Despite being perennially tipped as favourites since then, the West African side had failed to win the continent’s most treasured football medal. In 2019, they fell to Algeria in the final, the closest they have gone since the defeat to Cameroon.
“All of that is in the past,” Cisse said about the twin final defeats ahead of Senegal’s final match against Egypt on Sunday. “We have a different squad that is even better than 2002 and better than 2019. We will try to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes as in these finals, and we are very excited to have the chance to put the past behind us.”
Born in Senegal’s southwestern town of Ziguinchor on March 24, 1976, Cisse’s family moved to France when he was nine. They lived in a Paris suburb called Champigny-sur-Marne. His childhood dream of playing for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) became a reality as he featured for the Parisians between 1998 and 2002. The player later wore the colours of English sides, Birmingham City and Portsmouth, featuring as a defensive midfielder and occasionally as a centre back. Unlike his days with the Teranga Lions, his club career never caught the limelight as he retired at Ligue 2’s Nîmes in 2009.
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A Winning Mission
The former midfielder then delved into management and quickly worked for his badges before he got his big break as the assistant coach of the U-23 side between 2012 and 2013. He later became the head coach between 2013 and 2015. In 2015, he replaced Frenchman Alain Giresse as the Teranga Lions coach after they crashed out of that year’s AFCON at the group stages.
Saddled with the responsibility of building a formidable team after one of the lowest moments of Senegalese football, the bespectacled Cisse had his work cut out.
“I have a lot of ambition for Senegal, but it can mostly be summed up in one word: win and win again,” he said in a televised interview following his appointment.
Under his guidance, the Teranga Lions fortunes took a new twist. Apart from helping the team become the best African side in the FIFA ranking, Cisse set up a flourishing side which allowed star men, Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy, Idrissa Gueye, Kalidou Koulibaly to play to their strengths. Aside from qualifying the team for the 2017 AFCON in grand style by winning all six qualifiers – a first in the country’s football history – he also led the Teranga Lions to the World Cup in 2018 to humble his critics.
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In his first AFCON outing, Senegal were sent out in the quarter-final stage of the competition after a penalty shootout loss to eventual winners, Cameroon. At the 2018 World Cup, the second in the nation’s history, Cisse’s men were hard hit by ill-luck after they went out of the group stage on disciplinary grounds. Tied on the same points and goal difference with Japan, the Africans left the competition having gotten six yellow cards, two more than the Blue Samurai.
After the disappointment of Russia, Senegal set their sights on the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Like previous tournaments, they were one of the favourites and lived up to that tag when they reached the final of the competition. But for the second time, the star-studded Lions of Teranga were beaten by Algeria.
“The last time Senegal reached this point was in 2002. The experience of big matches, we want to be here more often. We’re getting closer to winning,” the distraught coach said after Algeria defeated them in the final in Egypt, the second time in that tournament. “The team has been making progress these past five years. A final is decided by fine margins and we deserved better tonight.”
Indeed, the Senegalese deserved better but started the 2021 campaign on a cautious note, playing what many tagged as “dirty football” as they gathered momentum in Cameroon. In the group stage, they managed just one goal (a Mane late penalty against Zimbabwe) in three games to top the chart. Injuries and COVID-19 also hit as they played their first few matches without key players like Chelsea’s Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly; midfielder, Nampalys Mendy, and gifted winger, Ismaila Sarr.
Heading into the knockout phase with five points, the 2002 runners-up defeated Cape Verde 2-0 before seeing off Equatorial Guinea in the next round of clashes. They, however, showed their strong title credentials and depth when they swept away Burkina Faso 3-1 in the semi-final with Cheikhou Kouyate of Crystal Palace and Sarr coming off the bench to score.
“We know we can do better, but we know we’re getting stronger,” Koulibaly said after the quarter-final win over Equatorial Guinea at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde. “I think that after the first and second games, or even the group games, nobody saw us there, but today we can be happy.”
‘We Waited Long’
In Senegal, the former midfielder is seen as more than a coach to the players. He was a fans’ favourite and was expected to deliver the nation’s first AFCON title. That wish materialised when former Southampton star, Mane, scored the decisive kick at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, leaving fans back home in an explosion of joy. A festive atmosphere erupted in the capital city as thousands of supporters trooped to the Independence Square, near the presidential palace, to celebrate the historic moment. Supporters were drowned in the sound of car horns, vuvuzelas, and firecrackers at the square. The Senegalese flag was hung from buildings, on vehicles, and on sidewalks.
Fans hugged each other amid bonfires outside the streets of Dakar and across the country.
“I’m happy. It’s the best day of my life,” a 25-year-old car washer, Modou Ba, said.
“We waited a long time. (The cup) is finally here. We really needed it,” an accountant, Seydou Nourou Diop, said after the final whistle.
President Macky Sall, who had declared a national public holiday hours after the win, had earlier praised the team for bringing pride to the nation.
“African champions. What a game! What a team! You did it. Beautiful moment of football, beautiful moment of communion and national pride. Congratulations to our heroes,” he tweeted on Sunday night.
He had also cancelled his travel plans to welcome the triumphant men who are billed to hit Dakar at 1300 GMT Monday.
“We never gave up!”
Aliou Cissé addresses the nation! 🇸🇳 #TotalEnergiesAFCON2021 | #AFCON2021 | #SENEGY | #TeamSenegal | @Fsfofficielle pic.twitter.com/WPiNKEJ0jH
— #TotalEnergiesAFCON2021 🏆 (@CAF_Online) February 7, 2022
For Cisse, the AFCON win is a dream come true. His former teammate, Salif Diao had quoted the coach as saying “If I don’t win it as a player, I will win it one day as a coach”. But beyond the craving for personal glory, Sunday’s victory is the ultimate gift for a football-mad nation that fought hard to land the elusive title.