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Afcon 2021: Will mentality warriors Senegal really get over the line?

The biggest African team without a Nations Cup triumph, will this be the Teranga Lions’ year?

Senegal are surely the most high-profile African nation never to win the Africa Cup of Nations, but will this be the year they finally get over the line and clinch the biggest prize in the continental game?

Head Coach Aliou Cisse certainly believes so, claiming that the team’s mental strength means they’ve never been as close to winning the big one before.The Teranga Lions became the first team to reach this year’s final on Wednesday when they saw off Burkina Faso 3-1 at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, Yaounde to reach Sunday’s showpiece.

It’s a familiar road for the West Africans, who are now preparing for their third final after 2002 and 2019.No side to never win the title have been in more finals, and while there’s every reason to commend the Lions for their achievements this century, it cannot be ignored that they’ve not yet been able to bring home the big one.

In 2002, the Golden Generation that would go on to reach the quarter-final of the World Cup later that year advanced to face Cameroon in the final where, with current head coach Cisse missing the decisive penalty, they were dispatched in the shootout.17 years later, at the last Nations Cup, they progressed to meet Algeria in the final, only to fall behind to an early Baghdad Bounedjah goal and never recover.In returning to the final this time around, they become the first team since Egypt in 2010 to reach back-to-back finals, yet while that iconic Pharaohs side had three Afcon titles to show for their sustained excellence, Senegal are yet to win anything in this fine cycle.Of course, Cisse took them back to the World Cup in 2018, as well as the two Nations Cup finals, while he has also overseen progress from Senegal’s ranking of 64th in the world when he took over to 20th today.

The former Birmingham City and Portsmouth man could have been forgiven for approaching Sunday’s meeting with apprehension, having been present for both of the Lions’ failures to date, and knowing better than most the anguish of Senegal’s near misses.

Yet there’s no such hesitancy about Cisse as he approaches another career-defining occasion, with the coach’s confidence in the mental strength and unity of his team underpinning his belief that this will be their year.“I was a footballer,” Cisse told GOAL, “and the only thing that helped me or made me feel better was to win, so I want this mentality in my team—they’re getting there.“[Their mentality] is very good, when they don’t score, they’re annoyed, when they don’t win, they’re annoyed—that’s good.“if there’s no difference for you between winning and losing, you’re not a competitor,” he added. “My team want to win, and to win, we must play—we’re aware of this.

Senegal are growing into the competition after overcoming a sluggish start and criticism about their lack of creativity, having improved dramatically from a group stage in which they netted just once in 270 minutes of action.They’ve now scored six in their last two matches—eight in three if we include the Last 16 victory over Cape Verde—and Cisse believes that the vicissitudes of their journey today is imbuing the squad with even greater mental fortitude.“We’ve lived some difficult moments together,” Cisse added. “I remind these boys where we’ve come from, particularly since December 27 [when the squad started assembling].“We had some Covid cases—they had to stay in Dakar—and we even had to use some of our support staff, the medics, to put up a team for us to play against—we’ve come a long way.“You learn that in the difficult moments, you have to stay serene, and I’m very proud of this group.”

Progress to date, however, means precious little if Senegal don’t bring home the title—a reality that Cisse knows only too well.“Even though we haven’t won the Nations Cup, you can’t talk about African football today without talking about Senegal,” he continued. “We’ve never been as close to this cup, but we just need to bring It home—it’ll be a big battle.“Of course we want to bring the title home—it’s not only today that we’re feeling this—but we’ll approach it without pressure.

It’s important to stay lucid, to focus on the game, and to take pleasure in how we express ourselves.”Senegal have had their moments of glory before—the generation of Diouf, Diao, Diop—but now it’s the turn of the new crop—of Mane, Koulibaly, Mendy—to step forward and prove that they have the mental fortitude to go further than their forebears ever managed.

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