The haunted return of Aliou Cissé

Senegal coach Aliou Cissé drops to his knees at the end of the Afcon semifinal match against Tunisia. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Senegal coach Aliou Cissé drops to his knees at the end of the Afcon semifinal match against Tunisia. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Rarely does a footballing life cycle complete as neatly as it could this Friday evening.

At the climax of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), Rigobert Song, clad in Cameroon’s iconic sleeveless kit, sent a poor penalty tamely to the keeper’s left and watched as it was easily saved.

Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf’s fist went into the air. Coach Bruno Metsu allowed a glint to pass his eyes. Amdy Faye and Diouf had just missed consecutive kicks.
This was Senegal’s incredible chance to get back into the shoot-out.

Aliou Cissé stepped up and, as if he wanted the pressure to slide off his shoulders as soon as possible, rushed at the ball and slammed it into his opponent.

That’s the last memory the Lions of Teranga have of an Afcon final. It’s something Cissé has had to live with. Until now.

“I feel very proud,” Cissé, now coach of Senegal, said after an own goal in extra-time saw his side overcome Tunisia in the semifinals.

“We haven’t reached the final since 17 years ago. This is the fruit of a long time [of] preparation. Those players worked hard for five full years and now we get the fruit of this hard work.

“Football is always charming,” he added. “At a moment you think you lost control over the game and fate will do it all. Against Tunisia it was like that. This is a game for history.”

The freak own goal that sealed his spot in the final was a long overdue rub of the green for Cissé. A few months after missing his penalty in 2002, he watched helplessly as a Turkish counterattack and golden goal eliminated the promising Africans from the World Cup during the quarterfinals.

Fast-forward to his coaching career and it was Sadio Mané of all players who missed the penalty that sent them crashing out against Cameroon in the 2017 Afcon. On the cult team’s return to the world stage in 2018, a heartbreaking Yerry Mina header in the 74th minute against Colombia denied Senegal an invaluable point and the side were ultimately knocked out thanks to collecting more yellow cards than Japan — the only time the disciplinary metric has been resorted to in World Cup history.

When Henri Saivet had his penalty saved in the 80th minute, Cissé surely had a here-we-go-again sensation sinking to the pit of his stomach. His emotional collapse to his knees at the end of the game tells you just what it meant to him to be able to rise above it.

“I have unlimited trust in my players and I felt they want to achieve something. They did all what is needed to win. This generation is better than the 2002 one. My players told me they will be better than us, and they did [it].

“My relationship with them is like [a] father-sons one. When I became their coach in 2015 I told them our target is to reach the Fifa World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations finals.”

That’s a double tick next to those ambitions. The issue of whether they can go one further and actually win the whole thing is guarded by the wily Desert Foxes. Throughout the tournament, it’s become apparent that Algeria is fully worthwhile of their nickname.

Egypt can be a harsh place — both on and off the pitch. Cairo is home to more than of 20-million people, living together in one of the most densely populated mega-cities in the world.

There is no time, day or night, that you will find the roads empty; piled up traffic at 1am on a random Tuesday night is not an unusual sight. Cars weave across lanes — coming impossibly close to one another — with what looks like suicidal abandon to a visitor.

Indeed, says one carefree cab driver, all signs and road lines are there for the foreigners; to the locals they are mere suggestions. His recipe for staying alive is simple: “Good luck, good eyes and good horn.”

With temperatures often hovering at about 40°C, a heat-induced hurriedness has seemingly been transferred on to the pitch. Algeria has survived until now, thanks to their ability to scrap until the end, to force their opponent to swelter instead of them. They have come to represent the relentless attitude of Cairo. Just as on the roads, the only way to get where you’re going on time is to make a lane yours and stay true to your path.

The North Africans’ past two games have gone the distance. Côte d’Ivoire fell in the quarters after a tired couple of kicks in the shoot-out and Nigeria were undone by some Riyad Mahrez brilliance at the death.

In truth, coach Djamel Belmadi would have been slightly peeved that the Desert Foxes weren’t able to finish those games earlier after enjoying the bulk of the serious chances. (It will be interesting to see if Baghdad Bounedjah’s profligacy and stream of missed one-on-ones cost him a spot in the final.)

The new Algerian project is still very much in its infancy but nonetheless looks unwavering. They’ve also already gotten the better of Senegal in the group stage and will be quietly confident of a repeat result.

Belmadi, like Cissé, once wore his nation’s colours himself. Could he induce the latest moment to stifle Senegal’s chosen one?

Luke Feltham

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