- *Ousseynou Cavin Diagne is a holding midfielder for Senegal's U-20s *
- Impressive displays in the African qualifiers *saw him make the team of the tournament *
- He is set to join French club Lille in July
It is often said that the lowest step on the podium is the worst place to finish of all. Not so, however, for the Senegal players who came in fourth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, their run to the semi-finals in New Zealand having thrilled an entire nation back home. Never before had any Senegal team ventured so far in a FIFA tournament.
"I followed their performances closely," says midfielder Ousseynou Cavin Diagne, a member of the current side gearing up for the 2017 edition in Korea Republic. "What they achieved was a real exploit. The whole country was gripped by their matches, and they can be proud of what they did. We hope to be able to do just as well in Korea."
With less than a month to go, the omens certainly look positive. Diagne and Co may hope to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, but in many ways they have already begun, with several curious similarities between the two generations. Judge for yourselves …
*CV: Ousseynou Cavin Diagne
- Born: 5 June 1999 in Dakar
- Height: 6'3
- Youth development: Darou Salam Football Academy
- Club: Lille (from July)*
The same coach**
A Senegalese international from 1980 to 1986 and coach of the senior team in 2012, Joseph Koto boasts plenty of top-level experience. Nevertheless, his greatest successes have come in charge of the U-20s, having masterminded runners-up spots at the CAF U-20 Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 and 2017, as well as that semi-final berth in New Zealand. Rarely seen without a cap, Koto is now set for a second consecutive tilt at the global title – much to Diagne's delight.
"More than just a coach, he's like a father to me," says the youngster. "I owe him a huge amount." And that description would doubtless suit the man in charge, who sees himself "more as a doting father than a strict disciplinarian. To get results, I start a dialogue and I cajole the players rather than bashing them."
*The same journey *Senegal's run to the continental final in 2015 could easily have been halted much earlier, with Koto's charges flirting with a costly defeat during the group stage. Trailing 3-2 to Congo in the 88th minute, and staring at a loss that could have sunk their bid, they turned things around thanks to two late goals.
Oddly enough, the current crop experienced a similar rollercoaster of emotions at the African U-20 finals earlier this year. They too had to dig deep and prove their mental strength to recover from a dire situation in their second group fixture against South Africa – and, like their predecessors, their adventure ended with a reverse in the final. "It was a very, very difficult loss to swallow," recalls Diagne. "We can't really blame ourselves for how the game went. We gave it everything, but clearly that wasn't enough."
*Similar saviours *
Senegal's hero in 2015 was holding midfielder Sidy Sarr, now at Belgian club Kortrijk, who mustered their two late goals against Congo, changing the course of the match on the win to a 4-3 triumph. Versatile and standing over 6'3 tall, Sarr was the architect of Senegal's qualification for New Zealand – and not merely for that dramatic double. His tireless work proved crucial throughout, earning him a place in CAF's prestigious team of the tournament.
Two years later, another tall and slender defensive midfielder answered the call of destiny with a precious pair of goals. Diagne registered twice in the thrilling win against South Africa, and, like Sarr, he found the net to swing the game and pick up a 4-3 win. Like Sarr too, he also worked his way into CAF's team of the tournament. "I don't know Sidy personally, but I keep track of what he's doing in Belgium and it's true we're quite similar," says Diagne, who rejects the label of 'saviour'. "I couldn't have done anything without my team-mates. The star is the team itself."
*The same ambition *"Our goal is to get to the knockout phase and why not reach the semi-finals," says Diagne, two years after the 2015 vintage made that very wish come true. Beyond their immediate target, however, the current line-up shares the same dream as every generation of Senegalese players: "To one day win a trophy with Senegal". The U-20s came close on continental soil in 2015 and 2017 – not to mention their last-four spot in New Zealand – and the senior team were CAF Africa Cup of Nations runners-up in 2002, but the lack of a major title continues to rankle. "Our trophy cabinet is bare," adds Diagne, with one eye on changing all that in Korea Republic.