When Lions stalked and Eagles soared
DAKAR (AFM) - Senegal made history twice over at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Not only did they open the tournament by beating World and European Champions France, but they went on to become only the second African nation to reach the last eight of the world’s showpiece event.

It was a high point for the Lions of Teranga, who have been one of the continent’s best teams thus far in the 21st century, advancing to the quarter-finals of the African Nations Cup four consecutive times between 2000 and 2006. That includes their first trip to a continental final just months before their fateful victory over Les Bleus in Seoul.

In that case, they fell at the final hurdle on penalties to four-time champions and West African giants, Cameroon. And though they failed to reach the World Cup four years later – missing out to upstarts Togo – they somewhat made up for it by reaching the 2006 CAN semi-finals. They lost in the last four to hosts and eventual champions Egypt on a late goal, but the Senegalese can look back on the six-year stretch as the undisputed greatest in their history.

Senegal had never had a player named African Footballer of the Year, but it was a measure of their success that flamboyant forward El Hadji Diouf was named the continent’s best two years running in 2001 and 2002.

Remarkably for the Sahel, the region’s other heavyweights, Mali, were simultaneously undergoing a revival of fortunes. With a golden generation featuring the likes of Adama Coulibaly, Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita and Mohamed ‘Momo’ Sissoko (all born in 1980 or after), they reached two consecutive continental semi-finals in 2002 and 2004.

In the latter instance, Les Aigles (The Eagles) were joined by Frédéric Kanouté, who was born in France and played for their youth teams, but ultimately chose to represent his father’s birth country. His four goals in four matches were vital and ushered in an even greater sense of expectation for Malian football.

However, things have not gone to plan for either Senegal or Mali in the last few years. Not only did both fail to reach the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but they disappointingly crashed out of the 2008 CAN in the first round. Kanouté did, however, become the first Malian since Salif Keita in 1970 to claim the African Player of the Year prize.

Senegal’s versatile Abdoulaye Faye, who plays in England for Newcastle, was defiant even after an inconsistent start to 2010 World Cup qualifying, saying: “This team has a serious chance of going as far in the World Cup as the side did in 2002.”

On the periphery of the region, Burkina Faso saw an end to their admirable record of reaching the continental finals, which they did five consecutive times between 1996 and 2004, including a last four appearance as hosts in 1996.

Sudan has inspired some hope by reaching their first Nations Cup for over three decades in February of this year. However, the side, made up entirely of domestic-based players, was outmatched in the tournament – losing all three of their games 3-0.

Copyright AFRICAN FOOTBALL MEDIA, 2008

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