“A little country who won’t achieve anything”
Pelé, pre-World Cup (2002).
In this instance, Pelé was wrong. Along with South Korea and Turkey, Senegal were the great overachievers of the 2002 World Cup. In their first ever World Cup finals match, Senegal beat former colonial ruler and then World and European champions, France. They followed up this historical result by drawing against Denmark – a team who had not lost a competitive game in two years – and then completed the group stage by drawing against Uruguay. The lowest ranked team in the competition had made the knockout stages. Sweden awaited, a team who had finished top of a group consisting of Argentina, England and Nigeria. Henri Camara scored a golden goal and Les Lions de la Teranga were through to play Turkey.
After a tight 90 minutes this tie also went to extra time. Shortly into the first period, Turkey hit Senegal on the break and İlhan Mansız neatly finished a cross. The Turkish bench ran on to the pitch and the Senegalese were defeated. They failed to get past the quarter-finals – just as Cameroon had in the past and Ghana would in the future – in cruel circumstances. However, although their dreams had been mercilessly dashed, this had been anything but a failure. Pelé’s prediction was wrong, this was an enormous achievement and the greatest in the history of the Senegal national team.
Nevertheless, Pelé would have been correct any other time. Senegal are regarded as one, if not the underachievers of the African continent. They have failed to collect a single title winning medal in their history, with their best achievement coming just three and a half months before the win against France.
The final of the African Cup of Nations in 2002 went to penalties and Senegal were in the ascendancy after Pierre Womé had seen his attempt saved. This was until Amdy Faye and El Hadji Diouf missed. However, at 3-2, Rigobert Song missed for The Indomitable Lions and gifted Senegal’s captain, Aliou Cissé, a chance to take the penalty shootout into sudden death. He missed. Fourteen million people slumped in their seats in disappointment.
Following the achievements in Japan and South Korea, the manager, Bruno Metsu, left for the United Arab Emirates for a higher wage. His tactical astuteness and open and friendly approach would be missed and Guy Stephan, former France assistant at the time of their loss against Senegal, took charge. Despite this change Senegal remained unbeaten in qualification for the 2004 African Cup of Nations, and also during the group stages. They were to meet the hosts Tunisia in the quarter-finals.
However, just as the fog descended on the pitch in Radès, this was the point it also descended on the Senegal national team. El Hadji Diouf was targeted all game by the Tunisians. Elbows and tackles flew in, and he even had to leave the pitch on a stretcher at one point. Tunisia scored in the 65th minute and the Senegalese squad went crazy. They believed Diouf had been fouled in the build-up to the goal and the game was stopped for ten minutes as members of the Senegalese bench invaded the pitch and protested. Flares made the vision even more impaired and a red mist descended on Diouf and his teammates. They lost their heads, lost the game, and the decline was about to begin.
After this, Senegal failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006, losing out to Togo. In the African Cup of Nations in 2006, Senegal qualified for the quarter-finals through goal difference by beating Guinea, but in the following game history repeated itself and Senegal were defeated by the hosts. It was an improvement but yet again Senegal had fallen short in the eyes of their fans. Still, they remained calm, keeping faith in their “golden generation”.
They bounced back from this disappointment with a number of wins, but were then defeated by minnows Burkino Faso and later drew with Mozambique. Despite these setbacks they qualified for the 2008 African Cup of Nations and were in great form under new manager Henryk Kasperczak and they went into the tournament as one of the favourites. It didn’t go well though, and after failing to win the first two matches Kasperczak resigned. Senegalese senior players, Tony Sylva and Ousmane N’Doye, and team captain El Hadji Diouf, all partied until the early hours during the competition. Ultimately, they failed to win the final group game and did not qualify for the knockout stage. A huge embarrassment.
Despite such failures, Senegal’s starting eleven had not changed much since 2002. Under yet another new manager, Lamine N’Diaye, they finished third in a tight qualifying group for the African Cup of Nations, losing out on goal difference. In their last game against Gambia they were five minutes away from qualification to the next round, but Gambia equalised and Senegal subsequently lost out.
Enough was enough for the Senegalese fans, they expected much more from their golden generation. Fans threw stones, sticks and bottles on to the pitch and tore down publicity boards and fencing. Fires were lit, windows smashed and the players tunnel damaged. The violence spewed outside on to the streets too, and the Senegalese FA headquarters were attacked and a bus torched, as riot police fought with the fans and used tear gas. Senegal had failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, the first held on African soil, and the 2010 African Cup of Nations. They would not play another competitive match for almost two years. A defining day.
““We weren’t a team – there wasn’t a sense of us working together. Relationships were strained to such an extent that eventually everything came crashing down around us.” – Mamadou Niang , 2010.
Photograph by Edward Morgan
A vast overhaul of the Senegal national team was needed. For far too long they had rested on their laurels and relied too much on their “golden generation”, thus irresponsibly neglecting the future. Someone was needed to tame Les Lions de la Teranga and put an end to the internal quarrels, selfishness, arrogance and lack of motivation and professionalism. Someone was needed to put an end to the circus. Amara Traore; former Senegalese forward. Le Dompteur De Lions: The Lion Tamer.
Traore had experienced the problems throughout the decade firsthand and knew exactly what to do. The golden generation were largely swept aside or had retired, so many of the talented youngsters were given a chance. A number of veterans remained, in order to provide some experience to the side and warn the youngsters not to make the same mistakes as they did; but largely, this was a completely fresh start. Senegal entered a period of much needed transition.
Traore has brought back the phenomenal team spirit that Senegal had under Metsu. Selfish individualism has been replaced by a positive, team ethic, and arrogance towards other teams has been replaced with respect. Traore’s football philosophy reflects him as a person; positive. His team selections have been incredibly attack-minded, often fielding three forwards, sometimes four, at a single time.
This is no surprise considering the huge amount of striking talent Senegal currently has. One quick glance across Europe’s top goalscorer charts tells you everything. Moussa Sow, top goalscorer in France with sixteen goals and 9th in the golden shoe, has been a revelation since joining Lille in the summer, firing them to the top of the league. Papiss Demba Cissé; 15 goals in 18 appearances and the second highest scorer in the Bundesliga. Also, Mamadou Niang, captain of the current Senegal national team has scored 12 goals in 18 appearances in Turkey and is second in their domestic scoring charts. Also leading a scoring chart; Dame N’Doye for F.C Copenhagen. With 13 goals in the league, he has also helped the team into their first ever Champions League knockout tie. Finally, Baye Djibi Fall, who finished top of the Tippeligaen last season with 16 goals. Add these strikers to Demba Ba, Mame Biriam Diouf, Diomansy Kamara and Souleymane Camara and you have an incredibly impressive set of forwards. Such a selection has resulted in Traore experimenting with different variations.
Photograph by Enrico.
Not only have the forwards been playing well for their clubs, they have been playing well for Senegal too. In Traore’s first game they beat a lacklustre Greece 2-0, Niang finishing off a wonderfully crafted move and later scored an absolute screamer of a free kick. However, after this, they lost to tough opposition; Mexico and Denmark.
It has been their African Cup of Nations qualification performances that have been most impressive though, scoring 11 goals in two games. Senegal beat Congo DR, 4-2, with Sow scoring from a cross and Niang scoring a hat-trick. This was followed by Senegal recording their biggest ever win in their fifty year history, beating Mauritius, 7-0 Papiss Demba Cissé scoring a hat-trick, Niang scoring twice and Sow also scoring again, with an own-goal making it seven.
Suddenly, the future looks bright for Senegalese international football. However, next up in qualification are Cameroon, the first real test for Amara Traore. It will be the first time the two sides have met competitively since the 2002 African Cup of Nations penalty shootout. Additional to this, Senegal have recently failed to reach the knockout stages in the African Championship of Nations.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it keeps flickering.
Photograph by James S.