Teranga Lions ready to roar in AFCON 2017

Senegal are primed to return to the top of African Football.

Since its inception in 1957, the African cup of nations has had 14 different winners in 31 different tournaments. With the exception of Togo, every African team that has competed in the FIFA World Cup has won the African cup of nation’s trophy at least once. Every African team but Senegal.
The Teranga Lions made their AFCON debut in 1965 and through 13 appearances over the past five decades the best finish they mustered was a runner up finish in 2002.

That particular year holds a special place in Senegalese football lore as it first began with the late manager, Bruno Metsu, and his side coming together in January to make a run in the AFCON that led them to the finals and a loss to eventual champions Cameroon. Five months later at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, Metsu’s team shocked the world at the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. A Papa Bouba Diop goal in the 30th minute helped Senegal beat the defending champions France and introduced the global football audience to defenders Papa Malick Diop and Ferdinand Coly, goalkeeper Tony Sylva, strikers El-Hadji Diouf and Moussa N’Diaye, midfielders Salif Diao, Khalilou Fadiga, the afore mentioned Papa Bouba Diop, then captain and current Senegalese manager Aliou Cisse. The Teranga Lions finished out group play in 2002 with draws vs Denmark and Uruguay before getting past Sweden in the round of 16 and then losing to the eventual third place winners, Turkey, in the quarter finals.

Coming off the highs of 2002, much was expected of that golden generation of Senegalese footballers. A quarter finals finish at the 2004 AFCON and a fourth place finish in 2006 prevented many from seeing the approaching downturn in Senegalese football fortunes. A tightly contested group in the CAF qualification for the 2006 World Cup so Senegal lose out to Togo by two points after a loss to the Stephen Keshi led Togolese in Lome in the second match of the group stage. Two draws vs Mali in Bamako and Congo in Brazzaville saw Senegalese world cup dreams slip away. Since then the Teranga Lions have failed to qualify for three consecutive world cups with the lowest point coming in 2010 when the team missed out on qualification for the 2010 African Cup of Nations as well as the first World cup on African soil in South Africa.

False dawns in 2013 and 2015 saw fancied Senegalese sides fail to make it out of the group stage (and in the case of 2013, lose all three group matches). This time there is much to believe in with the Teranga Lions. Under the influence of former player and current manager Cisse, Senegal are primed to make a run at the upcoming AFCON in Gabon and finally win their first AFCON championship. Warm up matches versus Libya (2–1 win) and Congo (2–0 win) may not necessarily be the harbinger of success but will still give Senegal confidence heading into their first group match vs Tunisia.

Cisse has built a team around a side with a plethora of forward options. Senegal has produced more than its fair share of strikers over the last few years but the backline of the team will need to be more than adequate in order to balance the team. From the excellent and highly coveted Napoli center back Kalidou Koulibaly to Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodj and Valenciennes left back Saliou Ciss, the Teranga Lions defense will need to be at its best especially against group favorites Algeria and their Leicester pairing of striker Islam Slimani and winger Riyad Mahrez. The striker options for Cisse remain a quality aspect of the team with Lazio’s Keita Balde playing up front with Moussa Sow, Moussa Konate and Mame Biram Diouf of Stoke City in the mix. The ace for Cisse going forward is undoubtedly Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. The 24 year old left Merseyside for the AFCON as Liverpool’s leading scorer as well as the player with the most assists on the team so far this season. Midfield will be a source of strength for Senegal with Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, Newcastle’s Mohamed Diame, Espanyol’s Papa Kouly Diop, Saint Ettiene’s Henri Saivet and most importantly West Ham United’s action man Cheikhou Kouyate battling it out for places in the 4–2–3–1 formation.

As Kouyate told the press prior to the start of the tournament ““What we did last time wasn’t good enough, especially since people expected more from us,” he commented. “We’re here in Gabon to do better than we did two years ago”. He added ““We want to show that we’ve matured and that what happened two years ago was down to inexperience. Now the team is more experienced and is hungry for success. I think that we’re ready for it.”

Senegal might be the highest rated African team in the FIFA rankings at the moment but will be up against it in their group as opponents Tunisia and Algeria are the fourth and fifth highest ranked African teams after Senegal. After the Teranga lions ignominious exit in 2013, former striker and tell it like it is bad boy El-Hadji Diouf said “The Senegalese team has no soul”. Cisse has worked hard to cultivate a team in the mold of his 2002 side in terms of teamwork and mentality but also a team with a soul and mindset to withstand in-game setbacks that Senegalese teams of the last decade lacked. Cisse noted “Since I took over in March 2015, there’s been a big step forward. A new mentality has taken root among the players. It’s a different team from two years ago. That old attitude has gone.” The manager added that “We’re aware and confident. Aware of the expectations on us and confident about our potential and about what we’ve doing for the past 18 months in the national team and what the players have been doing in their domestic clubs.”

As long as Senegal follow Cisse’s lead and belief, the implosions of the last few tournaments should be a thing of the past and the end of the 2017 AFCON just might see the Teranga Lions roaring louder than ever as they hoist their first ever African championship.

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