For Seychelles coach Ralph Jean Louis the battle ahead is as much mental as it will be about tactics, strength and technical acumen. And he says his island team are in a ‘good place’ as they prepare to take on Kenya at the start of the African preliminaries for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
It is a tough draw for the Indian Ocean islanders, who skipped the recent qualifiers for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and, therefore, are under threat of being short of competitive practice. But the squad have certainly not been idle of late. They won the gold medal as hosts of August’s Indian Ocean Islands Games, where the men’s football tournament is the highlight of the festival of competition.
It was a notable achievement for the country of under 100,000 people - the smallest population of any African state - and it was only the second time the Seychellois had won top prize in the regional competition. The ambitious coach says it is a major boost in confidence as they now prepare for the Harambee Stars, who are ranked 43 places above them in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
“The boys are confident, we are playing well and there is good morale in the group,” Jean Louis explained. “Winning the Games has completely changed the minds of the local players. We have a good group, and we expect to get a good result. Obviously the priority for us is to get the team through to the group stage. That would be a first for Seychellois football, to get past one stage and into the next. We feel that is not impossible, especially based on the success we had in the Indian Ocean Island Games.”
The coach says Kenya will be a tough physical test for the side that only began trying to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2002. “They are tall and strong and they play a direct game. We are a team that likes to pass around the ball. I think the difference between the two countries is that their league is a bit quicker and faster than ours but on the other levels we are the same,” he insisted.
Trying to keep momentum
Jean Louis will have but a week to hone his side for the two-legged tie against Kenya, which is set for the next two weeks, but he says he is also pleased that the tight nature of the domestic league title race, which finished last Friday, has kept the competitive juices flowing among his players. “It’s an advantage we have because our players have had league matches at least twice a week for months now and besides the small hiccups of injury here and there, there are all in good shape.”
The squad will be supplemented by Kevin Betsy of English club Wycombe Wanderers who, for more than a decade, vacillated about playing for the country of his birth, but finally made his debut in August. “He will come next Monday to join the players in camp,” said the coach.
But the Seychelles will have to wait a little longer for former England under-21 international Michael Mancienne. The 23-year-old full-back was formerly on the books at Chelsea and now plays in the Bundesliga for Hamburger SV. Mancienne has told the Seychelles Football Federation he wants to try and get into the senior England national team set-up again (he has been called up previously), but, if he has not won a cap by the age of 25, will throw in his lot with the Seychelles. Mancienne’s father was born on the island and is a former international midfielder. “Michael sent a lot of equipment for the federation as a gift, so we have good contact with him,” adds Jean-Louis.
Seychelles start their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign at home in Roche Caiman on 11 November. “It will be important to get a good result in that game,” said the coach, who then heads with his squad to Nairobi for the return leg away four days later. The winner on aggregate over two legs advances to the second round and Group F where the opponents will be Malawi, Nigeria and the winner of the first round tie between Djibouti and Namibia.
Defeat is not on the agenda for the coach, but Jean Louis admits a heavy reversal would be a set back after the many advances that have been made in recent months. “It would definitely overshadow all the good things that have happened to the team lately. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that will not be the case.”