No one in Togo has forgotten the unique emotions inspired by a FIFA World Cup™ appearance; least of all Adekanmi Olufade. The 29-year-old attacking midfielder likens world football's showpiece tournament to a "honey the whole team wants to taste again", but to reach South Africa next summer the Sparrow Hawks will have to ensure their talons are razor-sharp. Though competition looks certain to be intense in Togo's third-stage group, Olufade feels confident his team have what it takes to prevail, as he explained to FIFA.com with just a few days to go before the action begins.
"In 2006, everyone said we'd finish last in our group, but we ended up going to Germany," noted the forward of Belgian side Gent. "Nobody sees us going through once again this year, with Cameroon and Morocco in our group. But there will be a few upsets and we can repeat our achievement. We can make it and the whole squad is ready to give everything we've got."
Nobody sees us going through. But we can make it and the whole squad is ready to give everything we've got.
As strike partner to Arsenal marksman and national team icon Emmanuel Adebayor, Olufade recognises his own role in the challenges to come. "The team depends on us," he explained. "My partnership with Emmanuel is this team's main strong point. We're quick and that's a huge advantage.
"Our team-mates defend well and pass us the ball. After that, it's up to us to make the difference and be intelligent. We need to be able to score despite major pressure from the opposition defence." The statistics bare out that analysis, too, with seven of Togo's eight strikes in their four second-round encounters coming from either Olufade or Adebayor.
Away from the pitch, new coach Jean Thissen will have just a week to settle in and communicate his ideas after taking over at the start of the month, in the wake of Henri Stambouli's resignation. "It's not a problem," assured Olufade, who has three goals to his name in qualifying thus far. "He knows African football well and I'm convinced he'll be a plus for us. He'll get the tactics in place within a week. We're professionals, so we know what to do."
Having previously led Gabon to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1994, the 61-year-old Belgian must now focus his efforts on steering the Sparrow Hawks to South Africa 2010. Aiding him in that task will be a new generation of talents, who have emerged to bolster the survivors from the Germany 2006 side.
There's still plenty of experience in the squad, which is fundamental, and the youngsters bring a bit of freshness.
"The team is younger now," said Olufade, one of the men present at the last FIFA World Cup. "Lots of the older hands have either retired or don't have a club. We've rebuilt and the team coming together now is starting to look impressive. There's still plenty of experience in the squad, which is fundamental, and the youngsters bring a bit of freshness."
Overall, the Lome native sees much to admire in the younger players upon whose shoulders the future rests. "Floyd Ayite is very good technically and reads the game well," he said. "Alaixys Romao and Serge Akakpo in defence will also help us a lot. All of them are capable of doing very good things."
The new-look line-up could hardly have asked for a more testing start to proceedings, though, with the Indomitable Lions first on the menu in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where Olufade and Co must contest their 'home' games while the team's Stade de Kegue base remains suspended from use. "Obviously, we're going to be playing away from home and that's a handicap," he said. "Our fans won't all be able to come and, even though we've already played there, it won't be easy."
That disadvantage could well prove costly on the road to South Africa, but Togo consider it an obstacle rather than a barrier. Olufade refuses to make excuses, despite the presence in the Sparrow Hawks' section of Morocco, Gabon and Cameroon. "Along with Côte d'Ivoire and Egypt, Cameroon are one of three (African) teams capable of going all the way next year," he concluded.
Togo's mission will be to stop them well before the finish line.