Spirits are high among the people and vendors on the streets of Dakar. Many believe that this will be the year they finally win the trophy and the street vendors are expecting to profit selling flags, replica shirts and any other imaginable item covered with the Senegalese flag.
Conceding only one goal during the qualifiers, combined with a vicious attacking line-up, the Senegalese people seem to have reason to believe that their dream may finally come true.At a press meeting in Dakar last Saturday arranged by L’ANPS (L’association Nationale de la Presse Sportive), a panel of former internationals, coaches and league directors spoke about the team’s chances and what is needed to go all the way.
Mamadou Diallo, who represented Senegal at AFCON 1994, was among several who stressed the importance of performing well in the first game in order to succeed in the tournament. Cheikh Sidy Ba, another former international, pointed out that Senegal need to be viewed as outsiders and not favourites because there is still room for improvement, not to mention that their opponents have showed their prowess in recent tournaments.
Coach Alain Giresse has expressed his worries regarding the infrastructure in Mongomo. According to Giresse, the standard of the hotel is below par and could cause the squad’s morale to drop. Congo have already experienced this as they on arrival found that their hotel in Bata did not have the sufficient number of rooms to accommodate the whole team. Having only one training ground in Mongomo is also an issue. Another ground is available an hour’s drive away, but with all four teams in group C residing in the area it could lead to a problem.
Reports from the training camp in Morocco seem to indicate a good atmosphere within the squad, and the team have won both friendly matches in El Jadida. The first one against Gabon on 9th January ended 1-0 in a game Senegal dominated but needed a penalty conversion from Moussa Sow to seal the victory.
Against Guinea last Tuesday the Lions of Teranga proved they can be effective as well, beating their neighbours 5-2. Dame N’Doye scored the first two goals after Guinea had been denied on several occasions during the first 30 minutes by a vigilant Bouna Coundoul. Kara Mbodji, Alfred N’Diaye and Moussa Konate completed the scoreline for Senegal. Speaking to the press after the game, Giresse was satisfied with the performance saying that “in addition to showing their individual qualities the players worked hard together to achieve this result”.
The former French international has been criticised in the Senegalese media for his lack of communication with the press as well as some of his choices in the 23-man squad travelling to Mongomo. Predictably, some players have lashed out at him for not being included in the squad.
Most notably to lash out has been former Chelsea striker Demba Ba, who has been scoring on demand in the Turkish Premier League for his team Besiktas. Ba turned to Twitter to vent his frustrations after Giresse announced his provisional 28-man squad without the former Chelsea-striker. The 29-year old French-born stated on the social media network that he would “destroy any argument” Giresse had for not including him.
He later went on to explain in an interview with a Senegalese newspaper that his problems were mainly with the federation and that he suspected Giresse was acting as a puppet on behalf of president Augustin Senghor of the Federation Senegalaise de Football (FSF). Media have speculated whether he might face the same repercussions as El Hadji Diouf did in 2011 after he went head-to-head with the federation, airing his frustrations on a French radio show and failed to show up to a hearing concerning the remarks. Diouf was banned from all football activity in Senegal for five years.
Another hot issue in the Senegalese press is Diafra Sakho’s injury and his club’s reluctancy to let him join the national team for the AFCON. West Ham reportedly waited until the last minute to give notice of Sakho’s injury. Only after Giresse had picked him in his provisional squad did they get news that Sakho was injured for six weeks and was unable to travel by plane because of his back problems.
Representatives from the federation, including the president, have expressed their discontent with the English club’s behaviour, labeling it unprofessional and disrespectful. Former Marseille president, Pape Diouf, urged president Senghor of the FSF to take the matters to FIFA to make sure the FA will take measures to ensure the player won’t be able to participate for his club during the period he was initially called up to be with his national team.
The biggest saga in the media though is Sadio Mane and his thigh injury. First reported by his club manager Ronald Koeman to be injured and unavailable for the tournament, the 21-year-old joined the rest of the squad in El Jadida on Sunday together with a physio from his club Southampton.
Mane, considered by many Senegalese as the star who can lead his team to victory, has resumed training but there are doubts whether he will be fit to play against Ghana on Monday. Senegal’s physio Fallou Cisse is confident about Mane’s recovery but insists they won’t take any risks. Cisse also revealed in the same interview that he is very happy with the state of the rest of the squad, noting only minor injuries to a couple of players.
One player who surely will miss out on the AFCON due to injury is Mohamed Diame. The Hull midfielder will be missed, but in his absence Pape Kouly Diop has fought his way back into the team. Diop, who plies his trade in Spain with Levante, has proven he can make an impact with his precise free-kicks as well as open up defences with his technique and passing abilities. Already a favorite among supporters and journalists, Diop is believed to be one of the players who can make a difference in Equatorial Guinea.
On a personal note, I am excited to see Moussa Konate back in the Senegalese squad. The 21-year old striker, who surprised everyone at the London 2012 Olympics by scoring 5 goals in 4 games, earned a spot when Sakho had to forfeit. At London 2012 he played together with Sadio Mane and both players have expressed their eagerness to once again play together for Senegal. Konate is surely an outsider in the squad competing with several big-name strikers for a spot in the starting eleven. Though if given the chance he might just grab it and steal the show.
Last but not least, Senegals goalkeeping coach Sidate Sarr has expressed some concern about Marhaba, the official ball of the tournament. According to Sarr, the ball is lighter than the Jabulani (official ball of the World Cup 2010) and could cause trouble for the goalkeepers because of its movement in the air. Hopefully this will result in an abundance of goals and a spectacular tournament.