To find out where Benin stand in the football hierarchy, one has to look beyond the bare statistics, which include just two appearances at the CAF African Cup of Nations. Since the country qualified for the 2005 edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, however, there has been a change in the attitude of their top players.
"More than anything I remember not having made the most of the opportunity," goalkeeper Yoann Djidonou, part of that U-20 squad and currently an established member of Benin's senior side, told FIFA.com. "It's so rare you get the chance to contest a World Cup. In hindsight, I think that above all we went there feeling too satisfied just to be taking part. None of us had really prepared properly for the highest level. This meant that we put in some good performances but missed out on the Round of 16 by a whisker (on goals scored from Japan)."
Even so, football scouts from across the world were still given the opportunity to see a golden generation of Benin players first-hand, while current senior coach Michel Dussuyer is another beneficiary. Indeed, since the start of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Frenchman has used no fewer than seven members of the class of the Netherlands 2005. Djidonou, Romuald Boco, Jocelyn Ahoueya and Razak Omotoyossi have all gone on to cement regular starting berths at full international level, while Oscar Olou, Seidath Tchomogo and Abou Maiga make frequent appearances from the bench.
"That has been a huge help for us to integrate into the squad together," continued Djidonou, who has also set up an academy for Beninese children (see the link in the right-hand column). "Benin aren't a big national team like France or Brazil, who everybody knows about. Personally I didn't know any of the players (in the Benin squad) and none of them had heard of me either. I left Benin at the age of two."
The ties between these young players can be traced back to Benin's hosting of the 2005 African Youth Championship. Ahead of the competition, officials from the Beninese Football Association charged then-senior coach Serge Deveze with assembling an U-20 squad capable of doing them proud.
"It was at this competition that I really became aware of the potential of this generation," said Djidonou of the squad that finished third on home soil. "We all gained in confidence. I can remember that when I went back to Racing Club de France, my club at the time, I had the feeling that everything was much easier. I'd played in front of 40,000 fans, so to then play in the fourth division..."
Nevertheless, despite the budding reputation of these promising talents, not one of them has made the breakthrough at the very highest level of club football. "Each one's career path is not really clear," Dussuyer told FIFA.com. "They've not had much success in their choice of clubs. I hope that the national team will be a fantastic springboard for them. They deserve to fly higher."
Djidonou, for example, remains in the fourth tier of French football with Red Star 93. "It's hard to get a break in modern football when you don't know the most influential people and when you come from a country with a low media profile," he said. "I remember that when Stephane Sessegnon signed for Le Mans, I told all my friends what a great player he was and they made fun of me. Now he's in Ligue 1, is one of PSG's best players and could even join a big European club soon."
The goalkeeper also intends to seek a move up the divisions this summer, and he may well be joined in France by international team-mate Omotoyossi. The former Helsingborgs hitman, currently in Saudi Arabia with Al Nasr, has fired six goals in seven appearances in South Africa 2010 qualifying and is reportedly in negotiations with Ligue 2 side Metz.
"There's no doubt that Razak (Omotoyossi) has the most potential," said former Guinea and Cannes coach Dussuyer of the well-travelled forward. "He's got a rare eye for goal, almost always hits the target and is an extraordinary finisher." Djidonou, meanwhile, also had praise for the Nigerian-born player: "What impresses me the most is seeing him do next to nothing in training and suddenly becoming a goal machine in matches! He's the strongest attacker I've ever played with. It's simple, he's always there to break the deadlock."
Having kicked off the third and final round of African Zone qualifying with a 1-0 defeat by Ghana, the Squirrels will need the goals of their star striker in the upcoming matches against Sudan and Mali, on 7 and 21 June respectively. "We need to make the most of the home game against Sudan to get back on track in this (FIFA World Cup qualifying) competition. All the more so because they're going to be our main rivals on the road to the 2010 African Cup of Nations (in Angola in February 2010)," said Dussuyer, though his players know their coach has not given up on South Africa 2010.
"It's normal for a coach to say we're simply focusing on the CAN," said Djidonou as the interview drew to a close. "At the moment, I'm sure he realises that the players are only thinking about the World Cup. That's normal, it's a childhood dream. We must be realistic but I'm sure that we can still qualify."