When the referee brought an end to Senegal's group stage meeting with Algeria at the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, one set of fans had seen enough. Senegal had just suffered a 2-0 defeat – coach Alain Giresse losing to fellow Frenchman Christian Gourcuff – and the result came loaded with consequences. The Lions of Teranga were out, left packing their bags after stumbling at the first hurdle, and their exit quickly sparked off a crisis.
For Senegalese football experts, there is little doubt that the team's early elimination led directly to the appointment of former Senegal midfielder Aliou Cisse as coach. The new man took over a side in trouble, but he swiftly hauled them back on track, picking up a clean sweep of six wins during qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, where they recorded two victories, a draw and one defeat – on penalties against Cameroon. Meanwhile, Senegal have posted two wins, a draw and a loss during 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualification.
Overall, Cisse has collected ten victories, two draws and just two reverses in competitive matches since he took command, and those results have lifted Senegal to 28th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. They are now the second highest African team in the table, having completed their biggest climb since 2002, when the national team was given impetus by the likes of El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga.
As left-back Saliou Ciss explained to FIFA.coma few months ago: "We've been successful due to our togetherness and the solidarity between the players. We want to write our names in Senegalese football history in capital letters, and follow in the footsteps of the 2002 generation."
Cisse waving his wand
Although the Lions of Teranga progressed no further than the quarter-finals at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, the players themselves are unanimous in their praise for Cisse's work. "Our generation is lucky to have a coach like him," explained Ciss. "He has featured in World Cup qualifying himself, and he was the captain of the 2002 team and took part in the World Cup that year. His experience is helping us to push on, but he's not the only former player who offers us advice: Lamine Diatta, El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga are also there for us. As I've said before, our generation can count itself fortunate to have people like that in our corner. It's up to us to make the most of it."
One of the team's most high-profile current players is Kalidou Koulibaly. A pillar in defence for Napoli, he has been a major contributor to Senegal's turnaround in fortunes, but he too prefers to focus on Cisse's efforts. "In just over a year, he has rebuilt the side," the centre-back told us recently. "He's understood that the fans and media in Senegal are very demanding, and that's normal. But we must have time. He's very professional and dedicated, and the players have adapted to that. His ambition is to make Senegal one of the best teams in Africa, and he will succeed. Senegal have the means to achieve that and win titles, and I think we may be about to begin writing a beautiful story."
Koulibaly and Co have put the Africa Cup of Nations behind them now and are fully focused on the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. Their aim is to restore the national team's prestige, which has faded since 2002, but they face a difficult task after losing to South Africa in their second group game. As a result, their upcoming matches against Burkina Faso in August and September have taken on added significance, and Cisse's troops will be desperate for a pair of wins. Achieve that and Senegal will take a step closer to Russia – while no doubt rising even higher in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.