Arrived in Bata. The Senegal team was unrecognizable from the one we had seen during the qualification campaign. Indeed the Teranga Lions had qualified top of their group whilst scoring the most goals and having conceded the least. As such they stood irresistible in attack and impregnable in defense, which would then lead to the high expectations that were placed on the team. However, once the kick-off whistle sounded off, in the opening game against Zambia, the team showed a completely different visage.
Senegal went on to lose their opening game by the score of 2-1. But it was not the defeat that was disappointing; it was the manner of the loss. The defeat itself went beyond the tactics of the game as it highlighted a much more deep-seated problem that was not as apparent before in the team. Firstly, the Zambian racing to a two-goal lead within the first half-hour completely stunned the team. It was the proverbial sucker-punch and the Teranga Lions simply never recovered from it until late on in the second half. Even still, the team lacked ideas and inventiveness. Moreover, the players looked leaden-footed and simply launched the ball forward to an ever-isolated Demba Ba, in the hopes that the Senegalese striker would make the difference on his own. It looked like the team didn’t know each other and was playing together for the first time. Of course, Amara Traoré’s decision to play a 4-3-3 as opposed to his usual 4-2-4 may have contributed in disorienting the players on the pitch. All in all however, the team lacked spark.
A week ago, following the team’s return from Bata, El Hadji Diouf expressed himself in the press when he claimed that this current Senegalese squad has “no soul”. As vocal and sensationalist as the ex-international is, and while those who felt targeted by his statement may have discarded it as mere provocation, he did make a valid point. In effect, compared to the 2002 generation, this team does indeed lack that special x-factor – El Hadji Diouf’s so-called “soul” – for lack of a better term. The ’02 generation boasted of big personalities such as Khalilou Fadiga, Aliou Cisse (captain), and Diouf himself. This trio embodied the spirit of the team as well as they represented the dreams and hopes of the Senegalese people. This current crop of players, does not boast of that charisma however.
The fact is that although the current players play in much more high profile leagues than those of the ’02 generation, they are not thought of as highly or even as well known. As strange as it might sound, the likes of Papiss Demba Cisse or even Demba Ba, were not very much known until quite recently by the average Senegalese supporter. The current generation has to do something that the ’02 generation did not: that is to prove themselves. In effect the ’02 generation was already acclaimed as a golden generation of Senegalese football before even the great results they strung together in reaching the 2000 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) final and the 2002 World Cup ¼ final. The reason for which is very simple. Many members of that squad played here in the Senegalese Ligue 1 or at the very least came up through the Senegalese youth system. In addition, they almost exclusively played in France when not playing domestically. It might sound a trivial reason but the fact that the French Ligue 1 is the most watched league here in Senegal makes it that these players had more exposure to the general public. Indeed, before the great season Demba Ba is having with Newcastle and Papiss Cisse’s transfer to the Premiere League, Moussa Sow was the only Senegalese striker that was really known by the general public. Mamadou Niang was another, having been captain of Marseille & playing at the French club since 2005. It was the same case with likes of Souleymane Diawara and Kader Mangane who have also plied their trade in France for some years now. Consequently, players like Papiss Cisse or Dame Ndoye, who ended their previous seasons with outstanding statistics in terms of goals, remained unknown to the majority of the Senegalese people due to their playing in less publicized leagues.
Finally, and probably the most important point of all, is that the so-called “lack of soul” is most aptly explained by the fact that most of the squad is not from Senegal. Although it is not something I often like t bring up, it is important to note that it is the reason why much of the Senegalese people have more trouble associating with this generation. Many of the players are born in France and have dual citizenship. Moreover, most of them have grown up in France and gone through the French youth system before being spotted and asked to play for Senegal. Finally most of them have never been to Senegal. Therefore for the likes of Moussa Sow, Demba Ba, Armand Traoré, etc, it was the first time they stepped on Senegalese soil when they began the 2012 AFCON qualification campaign. This disassociation from Senegal is the major cause in my opinion of why the people did not get behind this team as much. Furthermore, it was also the cause for that lack of spirit that we saw from the players in Bata. I am not suggesting that the players didn’t care, but simply that they were not conscious enough that they were playing with the weight of a nation & its hopes on their shoulders.
The players’ inability to associate with the cause that they were playing for, that is to say the Senegalese people, was a major contributor in the dispirited performance we saw from the Teranga Lions in Bata. I often hate to employ the phrase “did not play for the shirt”, but I do so in this case – in the least provocative manner possible – in an attempt to explain the main catalyst of the transformation of the Teranga Lions I witnessed in Bata. Another important point to bring up is that all but a few members of Amara Traoré’s 23-men squad were participating in their first ever AFCON. The intensity of African competition, in its physical & athletic nature, surprised many of the players in my opinion. Many of them felt they should have been more protected on some of the tackles & challenges they fell victims too. Myself, a habitual spectator of European football, felt quite similarly about it. A FIFA referee [who was part of out delegation in Bata] explained to me that CAF referees often do not sanction virility, but simply intent in a challenge. All in all, the players struggled to cope with this new environment, and psychologically were never capable of standing back up. What we saw in Bata was a young group that is still raw & immature, and to which we must give time in what is still a period of transition and reconstruction for Senegalese football.