'A lion never dies; it only sleeps.'
It is an old African expression and a mantra trotted out whenever events take a turn for the worse for one of the several teams named after the kings of the jungle, be they the Moroccan Atlas Lions, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon or Senegal’s Lions of Teranga. In the latter’s case, however, their extended period in the wilderness has gone on much longer than anyone expected.
Quarter-finalists at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, where they progressed as far as any other African team, Senegal seemed at the time destined to become one of the continent’s major powers. Since then, a string of disappointing performances have worn their claws down, with those displays both a symptom and cause of increasingly testing conditions within La Taniere (The Den), the team’s other nickname. Now, eight years on from their excellent showing on the world stage, the big cats have become relative kittens, failing to qualify either for the first-ever FIFA World Cup on African soil or the CAF African Cup of Nations in Angola.
The side’s exit in the second round of African qualifiers marked a low point for Senegal, who had started as favourites in a group featuring modest opponents Gambia and Liberia, and an Algeria team few feared. Indeed, since the Lions of Teranga's quarter-final appearance at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2004, which cost Guy Stephan his job, a succession of coaches have overseen a growing list of poor results.
Ablaye Sarr, Henryk Kasperczak, Lamine N'Diaye and Amsata Fall have all taken their turns trying to restore a little optimism among the country’s 13 million inhabitants, but dressing-room disputes and administrative problems within the national association have left fans wistful about the past, with their heroes not scheduled to dispute a competitive match for the next two years.
Work and hope
Having hit rock bottom, the hope now is that the team can begin to climb their way back up. That is certainly the view of the Senegal Football Association (FSF), which has been attempting to reinvigorate the game within the country since the summer of 2009. The election of Augustin Senghor to the head of the FSF constituted a first step and an improvement on the pitch is the next logical development.
“There is lots of work to be done,” said Senghor. “But with the potential we have, there’s hope.”
A glance down the list of players available for Senegal duty certainly gives reason for belief, while making it even more difficult to understand how the situation became so desperate in the first place. Although El Hadji Diouf and various other stars of the 2002 campaign have now retired, the Lions of Teranga can count upon the likes of Mamadou Niang, who has been in superlative form since reversing his decision to withdraw from the international scene last year.
Currently the top scorer in Ligue 1, the Marseille striker and captain is the key figure in a line-up that boasts plenty of experience at the back, with Souleymane Diawara (Marseille), Pape Diakhate (Saint-Etienne) and Abdoulaye Diagne-Faye (Stoke City) charged with the task of helping the younger generation find their feet. Among the most promising new talents coming through are Manchester United’s Mame Biram Diouf and Moussa Sow of Rennes.
The FSF’s other key move has been to use the charisma and experience of some big names from the past to restore a little pride. Thus former international forward Amara Traore has been brought in as coach, with erstwhile defender Ferdinand Coly, who paraded his dreadlocks around the playing fields of France, England and Italy, a popular choice as his assistant. “He’s really a conduit between the technical staff, the officials and the players,” said Senghor of the ex-Lens and Parma player.
As proof that these efforts are starting to bear fruit, the team now positioned a lowly 94th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking recently recorded a 2-0 victory away to FIFA World Cup hopefuls Greece. “That win was the fruit of a collective effort,” explained the FSF President. “From the first day of the get-together, we felt a real commitment from everyone to focus on the essential, a united purpose.”
It now remains to be seen whether those shoots of recovery will continue to develop over time and allow the Lions of Teranga to meet their goal of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations 2012 and Brazil 2014.
Another African proverb reads: 'When you don’t know where you are going, look back at where you came from'. For Senegal, a glance over the shoulder brings back stirring images of their run to the last eight at Korea/Japan 2002 - not a bad reference point as they set off along the road ahead.