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AFCON 2024: Will Teranga Lions roar the second time?

Posted : 04 January 2024

The Teranga Lions of Senegal cannot be mistaken; they are definitely one of the superpowers in African football and the world in general. Perhaps, France would remind us of the memorable World Cup defeat to the African side tagged as underdogs in the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan.

About 22 years ago, on May 31, France opened their encounter of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan against tournament debutants Senegal, the reigning world and European champions. On that fateful day, the African underdogs, unfazed by the notion of crossing swords with the likes of Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, and Thierry Henry (Zinedine Zidane was sidelined with injury), pulled off a remarkable 1-0 victory in Seoul, beating the almighty France coached by Bruno Metsu, who sadly died in 2013. It was an uprising the world did not expect from Africa, beating its champions and putting in a memorable performance that made the entire football world sit up and take notice.

Papa Bouba Diop, who himself passed away in 2020, slid in to score the only goal of the game for the Lions of Teranga in the 30th minute, after El-Hadji Diouf had burst away down the left flank and sent in a perfect low cross.

The Teranga Lions, buoyed by the then former African Footballer of the Year, El Hadji Diouf, ultimately led his country’s incredible run to the last eight of the World Cup after beating Sweden, the second team from Africa to do so (after Cameroon in 1990), before losing to Turkey in the quarter-finals.

Another remarkable thing about the Teranga Lions of Senegal is that they are the only team, along with Norway, as one of the very few national football teams never to have lost any game against Brazil, having one win and one draw in friendly matches.

Coming to the African continent, before the last triumph at the AFCON, Senegal slowly grew in strength, and their players became Europe’s new-found interest in emerging African talent, especially from West Africa. This helped the national team raise its floor and transform it into a consistent, dominant side.

The rewards were there for all to see. The increased technical and physical levels helped the Lions reach the final of the 2002 AFCON, in which they lost to Cameroon on penalties, and qualify for a maiden FIFA World Cup appearance the same year.

However, Senegal’s novel prowess had a flipside. Given their rapidly growing stature, the scrutiny shifted toward the lack of continental silverware, which increased exponentially with each unsuccessful attempt to lift the coveted trophy.

After the turn of the century, the West African nation finished second twice, fourth once, and reached the quarter-finals on two further attempts in the Cup of Nations, but continental triumph evaded them.

Consequently, the narrative had already been set in motion long before the Senegalese delegation arrived in Cameroon for the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in early 2022.

They had been bogged down with a tag as perennial underachievers, led by their former captain whose missed spot-kick in 2002 prevented the African crown from reaching Senegal, attempting to alter their destiny.

An underwhelming start to the tournament would’ve excused any who doubted Senegal’s virtue as one of the top contenders. Only a Sadio Mane spot-kick in the 97th minute of the opening 1-0 win against Zimbabwe could prevent a false start.

Meanwhile, two successive stalemates against Guinea and Malawi meant that the Lions stumbled, rather than strutted, into the last 16.

But, the tide began to turn soon. Topping the group despite just one win helped Senegal prevent a nightmare section of the draw that would’ve pitted them against Cameroon, Egypt, and Morocco.

On the other hand, they cruised through their quarter, beating Cape Verde (2-0), Equatorial Guinea (3-1), and Burkina Faso (3-1) in consecutive rounds to set up a trophy bout with the competition’s most successful side, Egypt.

Senegal had lost the 2019 AFCON final with a second-minute goal from Algeria’s Baghdad Bounedjah. In the 2022 edition, luck favored the Lions of Teranga in a way it hadn’t three years ago. Within five minutes played, the Lions won a penalty which Mane stepped up to take. However, his effort was parried away by Egypt's custodian Mohamed Abou Gabal, and the tie continued at 0-0.

Rather than let their shoulders slump and allow their opponents a way into the match, Senegal remained focused. They peppered the opposition's defense with attacks while preventing them from doing the same. But, when 120 minutes of regular and extra time could not separate Senegal from Egypt, a shootout ensued.

Twenty years after wasting their best chance of winning the competition on penalties, Senegal corrected their mistake. Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy saved from Mohanad Lasheen to give the Lions of Teranga the advantage, and Mane made up for his earlier error by making it count. Putting sixty years of hurt aside, Senegal lifted their first continental title. They weren’t the underachievers anymore but the Kings of Africa.

Now the Teranga Lions of Senegal are undisputedly the most famous national football team in Africa. Their first appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations was in 1965, when they lost 1–0 to Ivory Coast for fourth place.

They hosted the 1992 African Cup of Nations, where they made it to the quarter-finals and finished as runners-up in both 2002 and 2019.

Coming to Cote D'Ivoire 2024, the Teranga Lions of Senegal are now blessed with an abundance of talent to call upon following their success at age-grade tournaments. Senegal’s team is stacked with the strength and experience of the older players, and the pace and trickery of the younger players.

The energetic coach, Aliou Cisse, made history for himself in 2022 as he became the first coach in the country’s football history to win the AFCON, their first major honor.

Cisse was first appointed coach of the Senegalese team in 2015 and led the team to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where Senegal became the first team to be eliminated on fair play tiebreaker rules.

He also led the team to the AFCON final, losing 1-0 to Algeria. In the 2021 edition, Aliou Cisse finally got his hands on the coveted trophy he also lost as a player after a 4-2 win on penalties against Egypt.

Cisse will now lead Senegal to his fourth consecutive AFCON tournament.

Besides the coach, the Teranga Lions of Senegal will rely on their shy captain, Sadio Mane, who has now become the teammate of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner Christiano Ronaldo at the Saudi Arabia megastar club, Al Nassr.

Senegal also has another rising star, Pape Matar Sarr, who has consistently shown that he has the potential to become one of the best midfielders in the world.

The 21-year-old has featured consistently for Tottenham this season and scored his first goal for the club in a 2-0 win over Manchester United.

Pape Matar Sarr was recently voted as the CAF Youth Player of the Year for 2022 and will use AFCON 2023 to further solidify his place as one of the best on the continent.

In 2024, all eyes will be on Senegal to perform and replicate the 2021 AFCON win.



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