FRANCEVILLE, Gabon, Jan 27 – Senegal coach Aliou Cisse still looks back at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations with a sense of unfinished business, so Saturday’s quarter-final against Cameroon offers a chance, partly, to settle an old score.
The Lions of Teranga have never won the continental trophy, but they came mighty close 15 years ago in Mali when they reached the final for the first time.
The other Lions, the Indomitable ones, stood in their way that day in Bamako and it was the Cameroon of Samuel Eto’o and Marc-Vivien Foe who came out on top in a penalty shoot-out following a goalless 120 minutes.
Cisse, the midfielder and captain, missed Senegal’s last penalty that day and both he and the country are still waiting to lift the Cup of Nations.
“A sense of unfinished business, a job not yet accomplished,” Cisse told AFP in Franceville when asked for his memories of 2002.
“It is true that every day we say to the players: ‘Don’t make the error that we made’.
“When you have the possibility to write history, it’s now, not tomorrow. In 2002, we were 25, 26 years old and we said to ourselves: ‘No worries, in 2004 we will win it.
“And we still haven’t won it. It is a regret.”
Now 40, Cisse skippered Senegal during that all too brief golden generation as they also made it to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
It was a year Cisse will never forget for multiple reasons — in the September he lost a dozen members of his own family in a ferry disaster.
He needed remarkable strength of character to come through that and continue his career at the top level.
– Rare chance –
After a playing career that saw him win 35 caps and also turn out for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Montpellier, Portsmouth and Birmingham, Cisse went into coaching and was put in charge of his country in March 2015.
Senegal had just suffered a disappointing group-stage exit from the Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and French coach Alain Giresse departed as a result.
It was a rare chance for an African coach to take charge of one of the continent’s leading sides.
Cisse is one of only four to have come to this year’s tournament in Gabon, and Florent Ibenge of DR Congo is the only other one to have made the last eight.
“Former internationals have two choices: there is the choice to die with your knowledge, and there is the choice to come and pass on our experience,” says Cisse.
“I chose the latter. Senegal gave me the opportunity and I am happy to do it.
“We have a proverb that says: ‘Only a son of the country can build that country.’ And I believe it.
“We love our country and if we want to help the country develop, I can’t do it in another sector. I can only do it in football. And I did not hesitate for a moment.”
Under him, the Lions of Teranga have risen to the status of Africa’s top side in the world rankings and they remain in the running to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Senegal had not even made it beyond the group stage at a Cup of Nations since reaching the semi-finals in Egypt in 2006.
This time Cisse has taken them to the last eight thanks to wins against Tunisia and Zimbabwe and a draw against Algeria.
“It’s a relief because it has been a good while since Senegal got this far,” he says.
“Different generations since then have come and gone but have struggled to get there. Our number one objective was to get out of this group. The boys have done it.”
Now Cameroon stand between them and the semi-finals.