When calm had been restored on the pitch, in the stands and even in the press box, Aliou Cissé struck straight to the heart of everything that matters to Senegal now. “This generation is better than my 2002 one,” he said. “My players told me they will be better than us and they did it.”
In truth that can still be debated although, if Senegal defeat Algeria in Friday’s Africa Cup of Nations final, the modern vintage’s case will be overwhelming. Had Cissé himself not missed a decisive penalty 17 years ago, when their most feted crop took Cameroon to a shoot-out in Bamako, then this week would be spent seeking to emulate rather than innovate. But Sadio Mané, Idrissa Gueye and Ismaila Sarr can succeed where El Hadji Diouf, Henri Camara and Khalilou Fadiga did not quite make it; Cissé, pulling the strings from the dugout this time, is quite content for the guard to change.
They have made heavy weather of their progress this year even if their place in the final is, at the same time, entirely deserved. Those spot-kick blues will not quite go away: Mané, whose own miss against Cameroon in 2017 sent Senegal home after the last eight, fluffed his lines twice in the group stage and Henri Saivet, granted the chance to avoid extra-time in Sunday’s semi-final with Tunisia, was denied by a save from Mouez Hassen. It was Hassen who later flapped a free-kick on to Dylan Bronn, his teammate, for the own goal that sent Senegal through. If Ferjani Sassi had converted a penalty of his own, four minutes before Saivet’s failure, then Cissé would probably be settling for nearly-man status again.
In the event he could drop to his knees in joy while hundreds of his compatriots cavorted up and down largely vacant stands. It had become a stormy night whose incident log belied the scoreline. Journalists from both sides came to blows after Sassi’s miss to the extent that security officers were deployed to restore order in the working area; later Tunisia’s players fumed when VAR denied them another penalty near the end. Senegal ultimately kept their cool and now must repeat the trick once more.
“This is the fruit of a long time’s preparation,” Cissé said. He has been in charge since 2015 and has weathered that disappointment in 2017 as well as a mightily unlucky World Cup elimination by fair play tiebreaker. Few would begrudge him the final step. It would feel like a fitting garland for one of the world’s most prolific, insatiably productive football countries too.
Senegal has a population of around 15 million but, according to the CIES Football Observatory’s most recent figures, has 203 expatriate footballers in the 147 leagues covered by the survey. It makes them the world’s 16th-biggest exporter of players – a phenomenal record given the country’s size and lack of wealth.
There are few richer football cultures anywhere and also few better finishing schools than Diambars and Generation Foot, the two academies that have developed several of their biggest talents. The latter produced Mané and Sarr; Gueye, perhaps their most important player at this tournament to date, came from the former and, if the 2002 contingent were the advance party, then Senegal’s class of 2019 are the direct result of the world-class nurturing that has taken place since. A first continental title would be a victory for excellent practice and one for the soul, too.
Cissé said the Tunisia win will “remain in the annals of African football” and perhaps the nature of the game, which veered from one end to the other between the myriad flashpoints, will help keep his players sharp. Their 1-0 victories over Uganda and Benin in the previous knock-out rounds had been satisfactory but also quite dull.
Among Senegal’s strengths is a physicality few can match and there is a sense that, against weaker opponents, it is wielded too easily; a skilful but flimsy Uganda, for example, were kept at a near-disdainful arm’s length but Cissé’s side showed little inclination to be proactive alongside that. An unexpectedly dynamic Tunisia made them play: when they do, Senegal look brisk and bold.
That might be their best bet against a sleek and punchy Algeria, who beat a depleted Senegal side in the group stage and will be further enthused by the new problem that Kalidou Koulibaly’s suspension, necessitated by a yellow card on Sunday, gives Cissé’s defensive organisation. But Senegal have always found a way so far and the prize is tantalisingly close.
“Our philosophy is to take it a game at a time and try to play the best football to erase the disappointment of 2002,” Cissé said. The mission, as deeply personal as it is collective, could not be clearer.
Source: Nick Ames