When French coach Bruno Metsu passed away on 14 October 2013, at the age of 59, there was an outpouring of grief throughout the football world. However, the tributes were particularly effusive in Senegal, the country that the Frenchman famously led to the final of the 2002 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and to the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
That campaign, 14 years ago, was the last time that Senegal graced the World Cup. The Lions of Teranga have been through a challenging period since, although the appointment of Aliou Cisse, a linchpin of the 2002 team, has brought renewed optimism. Since taking the reins, Cisse has put together a fine side who made an encouraging start in the final stretch of the road to Russia 2018 by overcoming Cape Verde Islands 2-0 through goals from two Europe-based players.
Saliou Ciss, one of the key figures in that victory, gave his verdict on the match in an interview with FIFA.com: "This group of players started working together two years ago. From the outset, our target has been to qualify for Russia 2018. After months of working hard, we reaped the fruits of our efforts by beating Cape Verde and getting our first three points on the board."
Next up for Senegal is a trip to South Africa and Ciss is braced for a tough test: "Not any old team can take away a good result from South Africa, but we're aware of the responsibility resting on our shoulders."
"We're going to be well prepared in every department so we can come away with a good result. We have to go there with our minds set on victory. The Senegalese national team always go out to win every match and only if that proves impossible will we settle for a draw. First and foremost, we need to win all of our home games, and then we need to pick up as many points as possible from our away fixtures. That's the sort of mentality we need in order to qualify for Russia 2018."
*Channelling the experience of Aliou Cisse and Co
*Many people wonder where the nickname Lions of Teranga comes from. According to the experts, the explanation is simple: teranga translates as 'hospitality' and the word is a badge of pride, reflecting the generosity and camaraderie of the Senegalese people. These attributes are in evidence not just within the Senegalese national team, but in the ties between former players and the current crop, a factor which Ciss talked up: "We've been successful due to our togetherness and solidarity, our desire to write our names in Senegalese football history in capital letters, and the 2002 generation, who have given our country a lot."
"We're lucky to have a coach in Aliou Cisse who has featured in World Cup qualifying himself. 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 that."
With Diouf spearheading the charge, the 2002 generation set the bar high by advancing to the World Cup quarter-finals in Senegal's first appearance at the event. Nevertheless, Ciss believes that the current team can go even further: "Our main objective is to better the results from 2002. We've got to win the 2017 AFCON and then qualify for Russia 2018. After that, we'll try to go as far as possible and to outdo the likes of Aliou Cisse, El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga, who got to the quarters in 2002."
Senegal have been handed a tough group at the upcoming AFCON. As Ciss acknowledged, "We're up against quality opposition. Algeria need no introduction, Tunisia are always difficult to beat and we mustn't underestimate Zimbabwe, because there are no minnows in Africa any more."
Still, the full-back is bullish about his side's prospects: "We're going to take every game as it comes and go into the group with the conviction that, when all is said and done, we're going to make it through. We dream of winning the AFCON, representing Africa at the Confederations Cup, qualifying for the World Cup and going far."