Six years on from Senegal's thrilling performances at the
2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, very few of the players who shone
on Asian soil are still involved with the national side. Lost to
the pressures of becoming icons, a large number had their wings
burned in various ill-advised escapades.
Bucking the trend, goalkeeper Tony Sylva was able to keep his feet on the ground. Now 33, the Lille custodian is one of the key figures in a Senegal side eager to force their way back into the limelight.
"Of course our team can reach the same heights we reached in 2002," Sylva told FIFA.com, looking back at Senegal's quarter-final finish and their loss on penalties to Cameroon in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations final a few months prior. "The talent is there.
"The last [Africa Cup of Nations] was just an accident. There were too many hangers-on around the team for us to be in the best possible condition. We weren't good. We weren't able to show the best of ourselves."
Hailed as serious contenders upon arrival in Ghana, with a strike force featuring Henri Camara (West Ham United), El-Hadji Diouf (Bolton Wanderers) and Mamadou Niang (Marseille), the Lions of Teranga eventually limped out of the tournament after the group stage. A poor return of two draws and one defeat was not enough to see them through, and coach Henryk Kasperczak was so dismayed with their showing he quit his post after the second match.
Right at the heart of the storm, Sylva found himself excluded from the team - along with Diouf - after a night out invoked the wrath of new trainer Lamine Ndiaye. "It's not true that we were out drunk until the end of the night, as certain journalists wrote," explained the experienced No1.
"On the other hand, yes, we did go out for a drink and got to bed at around one in the morning. I admit it. We just needed to clear our heads a bit. The atmosphere was intense at the hotel. But I understand the coach's decision. He'd just taken control of the team and needed to prove his authority over us in front of the [Senegalese Football Association] officials."
With those torments finally behind them, Senegal now need to focus on their qualification bid for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, starting with a crucial game against Algeria on 31 May. "Time flies, there's no doubt about it," said Sylva.
"Our preparation will depend greatly on the FA. I'm not even sure the coach has been kept on when what we really need is stability. We're capable of great things but we need the conditions to be right for us to be ready on D-Day."
Troubled by the doubts surrounding national team affairs, star striker Niang has already chosen to withdraw from the side for now. "I understand his decision," added Sylva. " He's got his reasons but that's not part of my personality. I'll always be available for as long as I'm wanted."
That could well prove to be a long time as, aside from his abilities as a goalkeeper, Sylva also has invaluable experience to pass on to the emerging generation. With promising talents such as Guirane Ndaw, Moustapha Bayal Sall and Babacar Gueye coming through, the Lille veteran is keen to act as a guide. "I want to support the youngsters in the same way I was supported when I first arrived in the national team," he explained.
"They mustn't be left to shut themselves off. It's up to us, the senior players, to get them in the best possible frame of mind. After that, it's up to them and them alone to prove they have the necessary talent to make an impact."
Newcomers and old hands alike will be put to the test in June, with four of the team's six second-round qualifiers due to be disputed. As far as Sylva is concerned, that will make for an exacting month: "It's a turning point that's not going to be easy to navigate. We're coming off a long season with our respective clubs but we'll have to get right back to work, without a holiday."
Algeria aside, the Lions of Teranga must also contend with Liberia and Gambia in Group 6. "We respect all our opponents," continued Sylva, before sending out a stark warning to any team planning an upset. "We don't want to hide behind the fact that the Liberian or Gambian players will undoubtedly have had less tiring seasons. We're considered as one of the biggest teams on the continent, so it's up to us to live up to our tag."
Who said Senegal had lost their humility?