A lack of respect is the first thing every African coach needs to learn to live with.
Text Sasa Ibrulj
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When in 2015 Aliou Cisse decided to take the job of managing Les Lions de la Teranga he was well aware of what is ahead of him. Since the expansion of the World Cup in 1998 when African continent got five spots at the final tournament for the first time, only nine coaches – including Cisse and Nail Maaloul this year – had a chance to manage their own country at the biggest stage. In 2013 when the late Stephen Keshi was giving his celebratory speech after winning the African Cup of Nations with Nigeria the journalists were already getting texts that he is going to be sacked. At last year’s African Cup of Nations, only four out of 16 coaches were African.
But, Aliou Cisse never cared about people that doubt.
When Senegal qualified for their first World Cup in 2002 he was one of the key players, commanding the midfield. They lost only once and conceded only two goals in one of the most difficult qualifying groups ever containing Morocco, Egypt and Algeria. Still, the team was never considered to be a serious opponent in the group with France, Uruguay, and Denmark. The opening match against the French was historic – Papa Diop scored the decisive goal, but captain Cisse was the one who bossed the park. Steve Bruce went crazy, could not resist to bring him to Birmingham. ”The boy dominated Patrick Viera. Viera. The best midfielder in the world. I had to buy him, the same day”.
Against all the odds that Senegalese team reached the World Cup quarterfinal, knocking out Sweden on its way to the Turkey match, which they lost in the extra time. It was supposed to be the new era of Senegalese football, but the cart went downhill. They did not qualify for 2006 World Cup but also failed to get out of the group stage in 2008 African Cup of Nations. In 2010 and 2013 they even missed the tournament, decaying to the lower echelons of African football. Until they appointed Cisse. He surrounded himself with familiar faces – his goalkeeping coach is Tony Sylva; his assistant is Omar Daf; the team coordinator is Lamine Diatta. All of them were important members of 2002 World Cup side and football men with a winning mentality.
That proved to be right as soon as he sat on the bench. In 28 matches under his guidance, Senegal lost only three times, including two losses in friendlies. His side conceded only three times in 10 matches between 2015 and 2017, failing to advance to the AFCON semi-finals after losing to Cameroon on penalties. In the qualifiers Senegal was unbeaten in all eight matches, leaving Burkina Faso five points behind. Cisse’s side looked disciplined, well organised and pragmatic enough for every opposition, producing the result that Senegal failed to do for sixteen years.
But that was not enough.
Despite their second best result in the history of the country, Aliou Cisse was heavily criticised since his appointment. The media and the fans have dubbed his style as dull and boring, accusing him of failure to maximise the potential of the squad. All the limitations were completely ignored and he was blamed of being too pragmatic, something he never wanted to apologize for.
Cisse prefers a system with four at the back, high and aggressive press, but in the last friendlies before the World Cup he did try different formations, including 3-4-3 and 5-3-2. That resulted in problems – they failed to win against Uzbekistan (1-1), Bosnia and Herzegovina (0-0) and Luxembourg (0-0), while they lost to Croatia (2-1). This left his critics with a chance to be even more loud – this Senegal side was given a warm, but pessimistic sendoff.
Poland is the biggest test Aliou Cisse has ever had as the manager, but his goal is to get in to the knockout stage, no matter how. He does not care about all the critics, bad mouth and discussion about bad football. The only thing that matters to him is winning points and advancing to the next round. Making history, as one of the rare African coaches who made it.
He does not care about the lack of respect. He learned to live with it.