Roaring success

The opening match of the 2002 World Cup pits one of Africa’s brightest hopes, Senegal, against France, the current champions and the country where every Senagalese player earns a living. Brian Oliver on the Lions’ 10-year rise—and meeting the coach and the patisserie owner who made it all possible.

Bang. “Man down,” said a drunken voice from the back.
The man on the floor, who had just fallen three feet from a shelf running the length of the hotel room, was the manager of Kenya’s national football team. Like everyone else there—the manager of Morocco, journalists and agents from Britain, Kenya and Austria—he had drunk too much vodka.

This was in January 1992. It was 2am at the Ngor Hotel in Dakar, Senegal. The man on the floor, who had been sitting on the shelf with the Moroccan coach because there weren’t enough chairs, had wanted to host the session himself. After a few beers by the pool, at midnight he marched us off to his room. He hadn’t told us that there was someone asleep in the bed—his “African lady friend” as he put it. He was persuaded to move on to another room.

A couple of hours later he got up off the floor and staggered off for a kip. His name was Gerry Saurer and he had been drowning his sorrows after his team had lost their win-or-bust encounter against Senegal that evening. Saurer was an Austrian hotel manager. He had never played professional football, but had dabbled in semi-professional coaching in Switzerland and the Seychelles, and when he pitched up in Kenya he somehow talked himself into becoming the national coach. Here he was at the African Cup of Nations, a good drinking companion but not setting a very good example at the beach-side hotel where about 150 players were staying. Seven of the quarter-finalists were booked in there, and somewhat fewer than 150 were obeying their 10pm curfew. The Cameroonians, still impressing anyone who would listen with tales of Italia 90, were particularly busy around the pool in the evening.

The agents were also busy. They turned up in numbers from all over Europe, looking for the next Cyrille Makanaky or Roger Milla. But the football was terrible. The pitches were partly to blame, the lack of tactical nous more so. Worst of all was the couldn’t-care-less attitude of so many of the players. Côte d’Ivoire won on penalties after a dire goalless draw against Ghana. For all the skill and entertainment on show, every team might have been coached by an Austrian hotelier.

The hosts were perhaps the biggest disappointment of all. Senegal, the Lions, had gone into the tournament expecting to win it. They lost the opening game, struggled past Saurer’s Kenyans and went out in the quarter-finals. The head of their football association was sacked, and their star player, Monaco’s Jules Bocande, gave up international football. He was devastated.

Ten years on and things have changed. Cameroon, the 2002 African champions, look formidable, far better than they did in 1990. Saurer is long dead, a victim of malaria, and you won’t find any hoteliers coaching the national teams. Defenders can defend, top-class players are popping up all over the continent, especially in West Africa, and there is a booming business in football “academies” looking for the next George Weah or Patrick Vieira. There are more than 160 of these schools-cum-coaching-centres in Senegal alone. Some are funded by European clubs, others by current or former players. Vieira, whose parents are from Senegal and Cape Verde, is putting his name to one, backed by the United Nations Children’s Fund, which will give the school charitable status. Yet more are bankrolled by individual entrepreneurs, or exploiters, depending on your point of view. They groom young players for all levels of the game in Europe—so many, and so young, that football’s Governing body, Fifa, has put a ban on under-18 transfers between continents.

It all took off in Dakar, in the year Senegal failed as hosts of the Cup of Nations. AS Monaco took a gamble by becoming the first European club to back an educational football academy in Africa. It was masterminded by the man sacked as head of the Senegal Football Federation, Malick Sy. He’s something of a hero now, back in charge of the federation and running the academy, which, perhaps more than anything, and given the good fortune of having an exceptional generation of players, has led Senegal on the path towards success.

And Jules Bocande is no longer devastated. Because Senegal are going to the World Cup, and the whole world will be watching when they play France in the opening game. France, the world champions, colonial masters for almost 300 years, and the country where every member of the Senegal team earns a living.

During the 1992 tournament the biggest name in Senegal, the musician Youssou N’Dour—great football fan, and composer of The Lion, which the BBC used as theme music for their France 98 coverage—gave a series of concerts. Memorable nights at the Kilimandjaro, a seafront nightclub, would start late, and finish at about 5am, after which many among the audience would drift along to the Aldo Gentina, an all-night patisserie and one of the coolest hang-outs in Dakar. It’s not late-night pints that count in downtown Dakar, but late-night pastries.

However, Gentina’s contribution to national well-being goes well beyond making good croissants. An octogenarian Italian, he was the man who persuaded AS Monaco to fund the original football school that has provided Senegal with five of their World Cup squad. It’s like one secondary school doing the same for England: unimaginable.

“Four of them are certain to play,” says Aldo Gentina proudly from Monte Carlo, where he has been honorary consul for Senegal since 1990. (He sold the patisserie to a Lebanese, though it still bears his name.) “I came to Senegal aged 15 on 12 October, 1930,” he says. “I used to play football, right half for ETPD, the port team in Dakar. Because I was Italian I was nicknamed le petit macaroni.”

Ten years ago he teamed up with Sy, who was a former minister for tourism as well as sacked head of the football federation, to seek a backer. “I suppose I was the doyen of the Europeans living in Senegal. Everyone knew me. I decided something ought to be done to develop football. Kids just played in the street, like in Brazil, and when you watch them you can see how much potential there is.”

Monaco were the only team who regularly played friendlies in Sene- gal, during the winter shut-down in France, and Gentina persuaded them to stump up the cash. “They give us £100 000 a year. That provides a living for 36 to 40 people, a pitch, equipment.” Salaries for employees of about £2000 a year are more than double Senegal’s state minimum wage.

“Two years ago Centre Aldo Gen-tina won the Romain tournament in France, a very important youth tournament. Arsenal and Barcelona were there. We had already made an impression because the players came on to the pitch hand-in- hand, with Senegalese music blaring from the stadium’s speakers.” That togetherness is instilled from when the boys start at the school, aged 12. Without it, the Lions would never have come this far.

“This is just extraordinary,” says Bocande, back on board as assistant coach. He’s right. It’s more than extraordinary that a country that has achieved so little in football should overcome Egypt and Morocco, both of whom have made the finals, on their way to becoming the best story in World Cup qualifying.

Were it not for Amilcar Cabral, Senegal’s roll of honour would be blank. Cabral was a Marxist freedom fighter in the tiny state of Guinea Bissau. He was assassinated in 1973 and gives his name to a West African football tournament held every one to three years, depending on administrative efficiency. No Senegalese club has ever come close to winning a continental trophy; until this year the national team had never even reached the last four of the Cup of Nations, never mind the World Cup finals. Twice in the 1990s they failed even to qualify for the Cup of Nations. But they have won the Amilcar Cabral a few times.

It looked as though they would fail again this time, too, after they drew their first two World Cup games against Algeria and Egypt. The players were a close bunch, having known each other since school or from the French league, and they called a meeting at an Italian restaurant in Paris, where they decided they wanted a new coach to replace the veteran German Peter Schnittger. They got one in Bruno Metsu—French, of course—and finished on top after winning their last game, in Namibia, 5-0.

“Extraordinary,” says Bocande, “but I still say the difference between 1992 and 2002 is not in ability. We have nothing to be jealous of in football terms, but in the mentality, the togetherness, the sense of unity of this group.

“This team is a family. We have so much fun together, so much banter, exactly what we didn’t have when I was a player. Back then, there was no solidarity. We were just individuals who played for big European clubs but who didn’t want to bust a gut for the national team.” Which sounds very much like Nigeria 2002. At 120-million, Nigeria has 12 times the population of Senegal. But they can only dream of such togetherness on a football field. When the countries met in the semifinals of this year’s Cup of Nations in Mali, Senegal won and Nigeria went home to discover their coach and half the team had been sacked.

Bocande says the catalyst came after that players’ meeting in Paris. Sy and the federation appointed Metsu as coach, and Metsu, who was working in neighbouring Guinea after having knocked around in the French lower divisions, turned to Bocande as his assistant. A big, expressive, dreadlocked figure, Bocande, who has a reputation throughout French football and Senegalese high society for enjoying female company, is on the right wavelength for the players. You will often see him with his arm around the shoulders of a player, advising, cajoling, being the big brother.

“When Bruno arrived nobody really knew who he was,” says Bocande. “To his credit he made a huge effort to immerse himself in Senegalese life [he recently married a Senegalese woman] and we have worked well together. Every time there is the slightest problem we try to solve it through a group meeting, just like a family.”

While Metsu does not appear to be the type to fall off the shelf at 2am, he is not a strict disciplinarian either, which is a plus when you are a European working with Africans. “He is not a policeman and he tells the players this,” says Bocande. “It has had an extraordinary effect. It’s like having your own child, the more you make him feel responsible, the less he misbehaves.”

Bocande acknowledges the importance of the Aldo Gentina academy, and the World Cup goalkeeper, Monaco’s Tony Sylva, says: “The academy has changed my life. You can’t imagine how difficult life can be—going to train when you are hungry, walking home without a penny in your pocket. Being in the academy, you immediately felt you were privileged. We owe something to French football.”

Most, though not all, his team-mates agree. “Of course we feel some gratitude to France,” says Alassane Ndour, the St Etienne defender who will also be in the World Cup squad. “We don’t have a developed tactical culture in Senegal, or in Africa as a whole. That is the difference between what goes on in Senegal and what exists in France. A football academy is a major gain in this department.”

The main dissenting voice comes from the African footballer of the year, El Hadji Diouf, of Lens. “We owe absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to France,” he insists. “We gave them our football, they offered us some education in return, that’s the way it goes. Lens spotted me when I was 14 and took me to France. But I have no reason to think it is they who have done me a favour. Nor do the rest of the team.

“We are not the France B team or C team, as some say. We are the national team of Senegal and we happen to play in France. And we won’t be losing any sleep over that opening game, even if France are the champions. We can beat anyone.”

Diouf was the hero of that 5-0 win in Namibia, scoring one, making one and earning a penalty. When “the family” flew back from Windhoek to Dakar for a procession by coach to the presidential palace, there was pandemonium. Alan Furness, the former British ambassador to Senegal, who lives in retirement near Dakar airport, explains what happened.

“There were so many people on the streets, the bus couldn’t move faster than walking pace. The atmosphere was hysterical. It was very likely the biggest outpouring of enthusiasm since independence in 1960. There are two million people in the Dakar conurbation and hundreds of thousands, goodness knows how many, were out on the streets. Girls were fainting, there were tears ...

“The team landed at dusk and they had 24km to travel. They arrived at the palace five hours later, at about midnight. If you were a man from Mars and saw what was happening, you might have thought at the very least that they had won the World Cup.”

The average age in Senegal is 18. For most of the population, this team’s achievements are bigger than anything that has happened in their lifetime. The head of state is aware of this. Abdoulaye Wade, elected two years ago, will “do a Mandela” and wear the team shirt, and he talks to the players often. He loves to be associated with them—his glamorous daughter, Sindjely, is another prominent fan—and any member of the team can call him any time. “He’ll even make his private plane available for us,” said one of them.

How different to Bocande’s time as a player when, he says, there were constant arguments with “amateur” officials who would begrudge the team their bonuses and billet them in “disgusting hotels”. The operation now, judging by Senegal’s efforts in Mali, is from another world. “The family” took over a decent hotel, dished out the sort of glossy sponsors’ magazines you’d expect to find only in Europe, welcomed the media, and generally gave the impression that they were operating on a different level from most of the other teams. Their thousands of supporters wore the Lions’ shirt, another European trait that I had never before seen in 13 years of watching African football.

It is Sy’s dream for the boys who come through the academy to stay in Senegal. While he was being chauffeured around in his new Mercedes, he told me of his target of setting up a strong domestic league. “An entire team from my academy who play in Senegal, and for the national team. That’s my dream for the next 10 years. I’m 63 now, and it will be the last big project of my life.”

Given all that has happened in the 10 years since they beat Gerry Saurer’s team, you might think he has a chance.

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