At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking a mistake had been made in the Group H table of the African qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. After two rounds of matches, neither three-time FIFA World Cup participants Algeria, nor Mali - third-place finishers at the last two editions of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations - top the standings.
Instead, Benin lead the way after an unexpected 2-1 opening victory over Mali in June last year and a 1-1 draw in Rwanda. Now the Squirrels, spearheaded by Sunderland’s Stephane Sessegnon and Dynamo Dresden striker Mickael Pote, are daring to dream of a maiden appearance at the game's premier event.
“I think we’ve got off to a great start, but there’s still a long way to go before we get to the World Cup in Brazil,” Pote told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “We’re still at the outset. However, there are some good young players in our team who are part of the next generation. We know it won’t be easy, but we won’t give up hope of achieving something incredible. We’ll give everything for our country.”
David versus Goliath
With Dresden in danger of relegation from the Bundesliga 2, Pote, who has netted six league goals so far this season, is one of the players on whom the club’s chances of survival hinge. As a leader in the national set-up too, the striker is eager to qualify for another major tournament after missing out on two continental championships since reaching the Africa Cup of Nations in 2010.
A trip to Algeria in mid March brings the next test for the team currently 93rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “Smaller countries like us can always cause an upset,” said Pote, who is still to score for the west Africans in Brazil 2014 qualifying. “Maybe we’ll get a David versus Goliath-type victory in Algeria. In the past we’ve already shown we’re capable of doing that.”
The 28-year-old’s optimism stems in part from coach Manuel Amoros. The former France international took charge of the side in August 2012 and has “a huge amount of experience that will help us improve as players. He talks to us a lot and that’s good for the team,” said the Benin No10.
Social project in Benin
Pote was born in France but opted to represent his mother’s homeland, for whom he now has 28 international caps. The imposing forward made his professional debut in France approximately ten years ago and first made a name for himself in Ligue 2, before causing a stir in the top flight with Nice.
In summer 2011 Dresden came calling, where Pote has since become team captain. He feels at home in the city, saying,“I love Germany”, but his time with the national team, as well as his social commitments in Benin, are also extremely close to his heart.
“It’s something very special to play for Benin. You’re representing an entire nation out on the pitch and everyone’s looking at you, expecting you to be successful. Hearing the national anthem sends shivers down my spine every time,” said the father of two. “I’ve had a football academy for 11 to 15-year-olds in Benin for a while now. Being able to help youngsters in the country is a hugely important project for me.”
Despite his success Pote has not forgotten his roots and is determined to give something back, both on and off the pitch. “There‘s a massive divide between rich and poor in Benin and together we need to try and close it. It’s an important issue for me, and my football academy is trying to bridge that gap. That’s why I’ll never forget where I’m from,” he said.
For now, the next opportunity to help Benin will come on the pitch in a matter of weeks in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers. And if the forward manages to end his goal drought in March, he could help his country move a little closer to realising its dream.
Hearing the national anthem sends shivers down my spine every time.