Cast your mind back, if you will, eight years to the 2002 World Cup. It’s a sultry night in Seoul and France, defending champions and one of the hot favourites for the title, are facing Senegal, a country playing its first ever game in a World Cup finals.
A momentary lapse in concentration sees Youri Djorkaeef loses possession on the half-way line and the Senegalese break with Omar Daf putting El-Hadji Diouf – a relatively unknown forward plying his trade for Lens – away down the left side. Diouf, balanced and composed, comes slightly in-field and reaches the by-line before cutting the ball back into the box. A flurry of blue and white, a desperate dive from Fabian Barthez and, crucially, the boot of Papa Bouba Diop. Barthez reaches the first effort and keeps it out, but the ball again falls to the robust midfielder who holds off the attentions of a posse of French defenders to poke the ball into the unguarded net. It was a lead Les Lions de la Teranga (The Lions of Teranga) would not relinquish, Senegal going on to claim an historic 1-0 win.
That night – and the team’s subsequent run to the quarter-finals of that tournament – established Senegal as Africa’s “great hope” of the new millennium, the African country with the most realistic chance of breaking their continent’s World Cup duck. However, in the space of the eight years that have passed since that heady summer, the West Africans have endured a gradual fall from grace, the momentum the team had gained in the early part of the last decade incrementally falling away through a series of underwhelming performances. But what have been the factors behind this reversal of fortunes, and why were the Senegalese FA unable to build upon the advances they made in Japan and Korea?
The Managerial Carousel
As is so often one of the primary causes of footballing instability, Senegal have been afflicted with constant managerial changes over the last ten years. The country are now onto their seventh manager of the last decade, the former Metz player Amara Traore the man currently charged with the leadership of the national team, expectations of the teams performance having seemingly become over-inflated in light of their relatively brief period of success.
Under the stewardship of Frenchman Bruno Metsu between 2000 and the conclusion of the 2002 World Cup the team caught the crest of a wave, many of Senegal’s best players hitting their peak and taking their country to heights previously thought unattainable. El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, Aliou Cisse and Papa Bouba Diop all came of age in 2002, forming the spine of Metsu’s cautious but intelligent and effective 4-5-1.
However, Metsu – one of the world’s most nomadic and well-travelled managers – predictably moved on (this time to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates), leaving Senegal on a high but rudderless in the wake of their success.
The Senegalese Football Federation’s response was to appoint Guy Stephan, another Frenchman, a coach who had had a couple of uneventful spells in charge of both Lyon and Bordeaux. When the team needed continuity, both tactically and in terms of personnel, perhaps the promotion of one of Metsu’s assistants to the senior job, instead the Federation opted for a managed with very little knowledge of Senegalese football and, at best, a mediocre coaching reputation.
The result of Stephan’s appointment was a disappointing showing at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, Senegal failing to build on the progress made in Japan and Korea as they struggled through the group stage before falling at the hands of the hosts in the quarter-finals.
Things then went from bad to worse for Les Lions, Stephan’s side failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, finishing second to Togo in a group from which they were widely expected to progress. Stephan was finally dismissed towards the conclusion of the campaign, making way for Abdoulaye Sarr, one of Senegal’s more successful home-grown coaches.
Sarr’s reign saw a slight improvement in the country’s fortunes – his team finishing fourth at CAN 2006 – but the squad had something of a stagnant feel about it. Although there had been attempts to introduce new blood with the likes of Papa Diakhate, Souleymane Camara and Cheick N’Diaye all being selected ahead of the competition, the team was still too reliant on Diop and Diouf, players who have never quite attained the levels they reached in 2002.
A similar theme has run through the tenures of the three managers that have followed Sarr, Senegal struggling to replace its faltering “golden generation” and slowly slipping further and further out of contention for both continental and international tournaments. Henryk Kasperczak, Lamine Ndiaye and Amara Traore have all found it difficult to find players capable of competing at the top level and re-building the country’s footballing pedigree. It has been a deeply frustrating chain of events for all concerned.
A Lagging Infrastructure?
Senegal’s problems with managerial instability aside, there is perhaps an argument to be made that several other of Africa’s more established footballing nations have vastly improved their sporting infrastructure – academies and centres of excellence now par for the course in Ghana and Nigeria amongst others – whilst Senegal has been left behind.
Where others have progressed at an impressive rate in the last six to ten years, the Senegalese Federation arguably rested on their laurels after the great success of 2002. Relatively little effort was made to develop the national side further, no national centre of development set up nor many grass-roots academies established.
However, any delusions of grandeur that may have engulfed the SFF after 2002 have now been well and truly cast off, an air of realism now pervading the attitudes of the governing body. In 2008 a senior member of the Federation was quoted as saying that Senegalese football was “At a very low level” and that the country’s football had to “rebuild, whether it takes one year or ten”.
To the SFF’s credit, over the last two or three years academies and projects have been founded with a greater regularity, the Diambars Academy – the brainchild of former professionals Bernard Lama and Jimmy Adjovi-Boco – being a flagship project that was completed in 2007 and combines football with both a formal and social education for its pupils. UNICEF has also increased its role in Senegalese football recently, Sergio Ramos recently travelling to the country in his role as an ambassador for the charity to look at the social and sporting projects that are both a tool for social change and, in liaison with local clubs, provide a rudimentary talent scouting system.
The fruits of this positive change are already being harvested, with young players such as Manchester United’s Mame Biram Diouf and Moussa Sow of Lille coming to the fore and starting to make an impression in European football. Senegal’s football infrastructure is certainly undergoing a rapid improvement and the beginnings of a second “golden generation” might just be starting to emerge.
Though there are several possible reasons behind Senegal’s relative slump, perhaps the major factor is one of context. Maybe Senegal were simply over-hyped in the first instance. After all, the former French colony is a country of just 14 million people with a GDP per capita of $993, hardly possessing the raw materials for sustained sporting success. Is it possible that the form displayed in 2002 was an exceptional circumstance, the ideal moment for the country’s greatest ever group of players?
The subsequent transfers of the team’s stars to some of Europe’s most prestigious leagues – Diouf moved to Liverpool, Diop to Lens and Aliou Cisse to Birmingham – further inflated, somewhat artificially, the reputation of Senegalese football and its standing in the world game. The zenith of this fever pitch was reached in 2004 when Pele selected Diouf in FIFA’s list of the 125 “greatest living players”, a patently ridiculous decision even for a man infamous for his poor eye for a player – he once named Nicky Butt as the player of the 2002 World Cup.
As much as managerial instability and a sporting infrastructure that has only recently begun to match the levels of other West African nations may have contributed to Senegal’s incremental fall from the spotlight, the idea that the team was overrated from the start is an explanation that holds true. Through their performances in one very special tournament, Les Lions set the bar (and the public expectations of them) at an almost unattainably high level.
However, after a prolonged period of decline, there are signs that Senegal may be about to re-establish itself as a power in international football. With the class of 2002 only now starting to be replaced, qualification for the 2014 World Cup should be the major ambition for Amara Traore and his players.
You never know, given the current steady rate of progression, the Senegalese could well re-announce themselves to the world in Brazil in four years time.