During the preliminaries for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Benin added their name to a list surprise African contenders for a place at football's showpiece event. In that campaign, it was only eventual quarter-finalists Ghana that prevented the Squirrels from making headlines.
Now, having qualified for for three of the last five CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Benin are hoping for a similarly successful qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, and they have entrusted former French international Manuel Amoros with the job of leading them there.
Amoros was a no-nonsense right-back in his playing days and twice appeared at the FIFA World Cup finals, finishing fourth in 1982 and third four years later. The young coach is demanding complete focus from his team ahead of Sunday's opening home game against Mali in the Stade de l'Amitie in the capital Cotonou, and he stressed that their first game is incredibly important.
"Playing against them at home is an important challenge," said Amoros. "Mali finished third at the AFCON 2012, they have great players. Some of them play for European Champions League teams, so we should take this first game very seriously.
"We can feel big expectations among the supporters in Benin and we are going to try not to disappoint them,” he explained, while also pointing out that Benin still have a score to settle with Mali, who took four points off them in the South Africa 2010 qualifiers. "Benin have never beaten Mali, but we are here to erase history."
It is, of course, not only Mali with whom Benin have to contend. Rwanda and South Africa 2010 finalists Algeria are the other two teams in Group H, and Amoros is aware that his team will have their work cut out for them if they want to make it to the final round of qualifying. "Though we are considered as outsiders, we are not scared of any team. We are aware Mali and Algeria are the favourites, but a game remains a game. It is 90 minutes during which anything can happen."
Hard work brings first rewards
Benin is Amoros' second national team coaching position after being in charge of the Comoros Islands, and he also has experience in Kuwait as well as his native France. "Coaching a national team is of course very different from coaching a club. You only work with your players a few days a month, when there are international games.
"June is an exception because you can have your players for a longer time then. We just had a good week of work, at the end of which we managed to get a 2-2 draw in Burkina Faso. It was the first time I could work with my group of players for such a long period, I am pleased with that."
Unlike many other European coaches in Africa, the 50-year-old, who took over from Edme Codjo in January 2012, has chosen to live in Africa. "I live in Benin and am based in Cotonou. I am also in charge of the local national team, and I regularly travel to Europe to meet my expatriate players."
Amoros, who won the 1984 UEFA European Championship with Les Bleus, has a whole array of European-based professionals that he can call on for the Squirrels. That is, of course, not to say that locally-based players are not in the mix. "Local players will have their chance. Football in Benin is at the start of a new cycle. The national league was relaunched last year with only 12 teams and the next edition will increase to 14 teams. So we will have a larger basis to compare local players."
The star player in the Benin side is undoubtedly Stephane Sessegnon. The bustling midfielder has just played himself on to the radar of bigger Premier League clubs after a good season with Sunderland, during which he started 42 out of a possible 43 matches and was elected as the clubs' Player of the Year. "He is our number one asset," said Amoros. "He always pays close attention, you can feel he wants to learn. What I also appreciate is his strong motivation when wearing the national jersey and his being strongly ambitious for the Squirrels."
When pressed on expectations, the coach expressed confidence that the Squirrels can continue to develop into an even stronger footballing nation. "Can Benin be the next African surprise? Why not! We are working to do so. But there is no secret: we will need time and stability."