Monday saw the sixth anniversary of Senegal's 2-1 extra time win over Sweden: a result that put the Africans into the quarter-finals at Korea/Japan 2002 and marked the biggest achievement in the nation's footballing history. However, since announcing their arrival on the world scene so memorably at the tournament, Senegal have undeniably been on a slump.
So much was promised of that golden generation that conspired to beat World and European champions France in Seoul, before roaring to the quarter-finals, where they lost to Turkey by a single goal. El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga, Salif Diao, Henri Camara and the rest looked like the next big things in world football.
But after big money moves for Diao and Diouf to Liverpool failed to benefit either player or club, most of Senegal's class of '02 have settled into mid-table professional anonymity in England and France.
The promise of a Senegalese revolution at the highest levels of the game proved to be exaggerated, and fortunes at international level have been even more troubling for fans of the Lions of Teranga. A recent draw to Liberia in qualifying for the next FIFA World Cup™ and CAF Africa Cup of Nations, both in 2010, was a blow to the side's already fragile sense of self confidence. But the team are putting on a brave face.
Trying to stay positive
"We've had some problems of late," Newcastle United's Abdoulaye Faye told African Football Media after missing out on the weekend's disappointing 2-2 draw with Liberia through injury. "This is a tough result for us to deal with, but I am confident in my teammates, and I am sure that eventually we can rise to the level of the team from 2002 by reaching the World Cup and going far."
El Hadji Diouf, who settled in at Bolton after his 2002 Anfield move turned sour, is also still confident that Senegal can recapture the form of old. "We have nothing to be worried about at the moment," said the CAF Footballer of the Year of 2001 and 2002, who scored the first goal against the Liberians. " ."
Since Korea/Japan, Senegal have done precious little of note internationally. After the departure of then-coach Bruno Metsu a raft of men have tried to steady the side, but most have failed. The side couldn't qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, pipped in a tough group by Togo, but they have kept some pride on the continent, reaching the Cup of Nations quarter-finals in 2004 and the last four in 2006.
This year's African finals in Ghana brought more pain, however, with Polish head coach Henri Kasperczak quitting the team after just two matches and a trio of key starters: Diouf, goalkeeper Tony Sylva and midfielder Ousmane Ndoye left on the bench for the third contest after being photographed at a nightclub late in the night. It seemed that the side was completely fractured by the end of the tournament after Diouf publicly criticised at the nation's FA and even his team-mates to the press.
Some major peace-making allowed the side to launch into the preliminary campaign, but again, things have not gone according to plan. Support for local boss Lamine Ndiaye remains high in the team despite speculation about his sacking in the local press. "Lamine is the man for the job," Fulham's Diomansy Kamara said in Liberia's capital of Monrovia after the hosts scored two goals in the last 15 minutes to earn a point. "If we are going to get anywhere as a team, it will be down to his leadership and tactics."
The players' rosy assessment of the situation, though accurate, lacks a degree of subtlety. Senegal are currently on five points from three games and top of the group, though only on goal difference as upstarts Gambia, who drew Senegal at home, also have five points. Algeria are only two points back and even youthful Liberia have two points to show for their efforts
Sylva, who recently left Lille for Trabzonspor in Turkey and was in goal for the glory days of 2002 is also keeping calm and unwilling to talk of a crisis. "We could have won here in Monrovia," he said. "If you look at the group, we are in very good position at the moment and our best is yet to come."
"We have two home matches coming up and we should win these easily," said Dakar-born France-based holding midfielder Moustapha Bayal Sall, referring to the 21 June date with Liberia again and Gambia in September. "We will not see a repeat of 2006 when we failed to reach the finals. Senegal will be in South Africa."
Courtesy of African Football Media