What a difference six years has made to the international standing of Senegal as they prepare to host Gambia tomorrow in a make-or-break 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier.
Peroxide blond goal poacher El Hadji Diouf and his 'Teranga Lions' team-mates become instantly-recognisable heroes everywhere after reaching the 2002 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals. Shock qualifiers at the expense of Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, Senegal stunned defending champions France in the opening match, while Sweden also fell victim before the weary warriors succumbed to Turkey in extra time.
Much was expected of the new kids on the block, but Diouf and company failed to deliver, losing an ugly 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations quater-final to hosts Tunisia amid unseasonal fog. Worse followed a year later when a heavily-favoured Senegal still relying heavily on their former heroes could finish only second behind upstarts Togo and missed out on the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
And when the 'Lions' made a timid first-round exit from the Cup of Nations this year, Franco-Pole coach Henri Kasperczak fell on his sword and 29 of 40 football federation members followed suit. Enter Lamin Ndiaye as coach for 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Algeria, tiny neighbours Gambia and Liberia against a background of realism not often found in African football.
"If we do not qualify for the World Cup in South Africa it will not be a disaster. Of course we will try to be present and always select the best team possible," said official Saer Seck. "."
Ndiaye has already been granted one extension to his contract, but knows his future with the 'Teranga Lions' hinges on the outcome against Gambia at the 60,000-seat national stadium in Dakar. Algeria (nine points) top the table ahead of a fixture at lowly Liberia (two), while Gambia and Senegal have eight each with the 'Scorpions' second because of a better goal difference, plus three to plus two.
Victory for Senegal over opponents they have not lost competitively to since 1962 should see them safely into the final qualifying phase as group winners or one of the best eight runners-up. A defeat would spell the end for the Lions and even a draw against youthful rivals coached by Belgian Paul Put might not be enough to secure a place in the 24 October third-round draw.
Ndiaye wants President Abdoulaye Wade among a capacity crowd, believing the presence of the head of state "would be a source of exceptional motivation for the players". The build-up has been controversial with the coach ignoring Mamadou Niang, believing loyalty to ever-present squad members is more important than recalling a Marseille striker who has ended a boycott of the national team.