There was one very interested observer watching Senegal secure their place at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament with a 2-0 play-off victory against Oman at the City of Coventry Stadium last month: Patrick Vieira.
The former Arsenal and Inter Milan midfielder may have been a FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO winner with France, for whom he made more than 100 appearances, but he was born in Senegal and retains a keen interest in his native country’s performance on the pitch.
Vieira could therefore not hide his delight after goals from Ibrahima Balde and Abdoulaye Sane booked Senegal’s spot at London 2012, telling FIFA.com immediately after the match: “I think it was a good game to watch and I’m glad Senegal won, of course, because of my origins.
“It was two opposite teams, one who tried to keep it on the floor with a technical, passing game and one who played on the physical aspect. But I think when you get to that stage of the competition what is really important is to qualify and go to the Olympics because you are one step from the big stage.”
Having ensured their maiden appearance on that “big stage”, Senegal did not have to wait long to discover exactly which teams they would be facing during the July/August tournament, with the draw held at Wembley the day after their play-off in Coventry.
With the previous night’s celebrations barely completed, the Lions of Teranga were handed one of the toughest groups imaginable as they were drawn alongside competition hosts Great Britain, United Arab Emirates and two-time champions Uruguay.
Although Aliou Cisse’s men face the daunting prospect of an opening match against Great Britain at Old Trafford before taking on Uruguay at Wembley, Vieira believes Senegal should approach the event with confidence.
Squad intends to compete
“Of course Senegal can compete,” said Vieira, who currently holds the position of Football Development Executive at Premier League side Manchester City, where he ended his 18-year playing career.
“It is a really exciting moment for them, I don’t know if they realise what they have achieved yet. When you believe in yourself you can beat any team. Of course they are not going to be the favourites for the tournament but surprises always happen in football.
“When you look at a big squad like Brazil, they are among the favourites because they are used to playing on that stage, but why not Senegal? I wish them all the best and I will be here watching them.”
That sentiment is shared by the players too, according to defender Kara Mbodji, who was among those to impress during the win over Oman. The need to qualify via a play-off, having only finished fourth during the 2011 CAF U-23 Championship, has not dampened the enthusiasm in the squad.
Mbodji explained to FIFA.com: “It’s really good because it’s the first time Senegal will go to the Olympics. We’re very happy to play in England and it’s a good chance to show yourself because myself and other players may one day come to play here because we like the Premier League. We will keep working and we want to come to the Olympics to win something.”
Olympics 'deserves credit'
Vieira’s excitement is not confined to the fortunes of Senegal, however, and the 35-year-old talked in glowing terms about the importance of the Olympic football tournament. “It is a fantastic tournament because you are looking for experience,” he continued.
“In England every single game will be packed and full because it is a country of football and you will not find that experience for young players anywhere else. I think the Olympics deserves more credit than it gets.
“I was with France at the Olympics at Atlanta 1996. I got injured and had to leave but the other players told me it was fantastic and well-organised, they had a really good time and it was a fantastic experience for them. So I think football at the Olympics deserves more credit.”