The Teranga Lions’ New Roar

With a disappointing African Cup of Nations behind them, the Teranga Lions are building anew. Ogo Sylla checks their progress. You can reach him on @Terenga_Lions

After what we thought was already a new dawn for Senegalese football, there seems to be a new wave of youngsters making their way through. On 29th February, Senegal travelled to Durban to take on South Africa (Bafana Bafana) in an international friendly. Under intermediary coach Karim Sega Diouf, many players from the U-23 squad were integrated into the group. It was a surprise for many of the Senegalese fans but given the disillusion after the AFCON 2012, it was somewhat understandable.

 The opinion was that of cynicism when the U-23 players’ names were seen in Diouf’s 22-men list. Now the intermediary coach is the current U-23 coach and many felt that Diouf was simply picking his kids. Moreover, nine of them replaced players from the AFCON 2012 squad. That, in itself was a surprise. In effect, the opinion was that too many changes were being made, given the context of the quickly approaching AFCON 2013.

 However, it didn’t seem that way at all once the referee blew the final whistle at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.  Of the nine U-23s who were picked, five were in the starting XI and a sixth came on as a substitute. Three quarters of the defence was composed of youngsters with U-23 captain Abdoulaye Ba (centre-back), Papa Gueye (centre-back) and Pape Ndiaye Souare (left-back). Promising Lille central midfielder Idrissa Gueye and defensive midfielder Ricardo Faty were lined up in midfield while Moussa Konate played on the right flank of the forward line.

 Indeed what we saw is the new direction Senegalese football is taking.Well, bringing in new blood into the team would only increase the competition for places. After all, the effort and lack of fight of the team witnessed in Bata was much criticized. And need I say, a little jolt was much required.

Terenga Lions building anew

 What I found most impressive about the new U-23s is the mentality they showcased against South Africa. Most of them were experiencing their very first cap for Senegal, but they dealt with the occasion very well. They were solid defensively and fought for every ball. Even though South Africa dominated in the opening minutes and created good chances, the team maintained good shape and succeeded in keeping the ball as well. Abdoulaye Ba was very timely in his interventions and saved the team from many a dangerous counter situation. Idrissa Gueye worked tirelessly all over the pitch whilst Ricardo Faty did well in front of the defence. What the U-23s showed was hunger, a hunger that was unfortunately far too absent in Bata. What was most telling was the fact that they seemed concerned (by what had happened at AFCON 2012) and played almost with a mind to rectify the deception of Bata. That in itself is a massive positive and this performance against the Bafana Bafana will do great for their confidence.

The future looks a bit brighter all of a sudden then for Senegal. Personally, I always had a lot of apprehension when I saw Diouf’s 22-men list. In fact I wondered if the U-23s had the required technical and tactical level. My mistrust for the players at the local level was misplaced and I find myself having to eat humble pie. Even the old heads of the team appreciated their presence and efforts. Bouna Coundoul, the goalkeeper was extremely proud of the two young defenders who played in front of him. Dame Ndoye, who was captain of the day, also expressed how pleased he was of the U-23s’ performance and commented that it shows Senegalese football has untapped reserves that we don’t often enough look towards. Coundoul said it himself when he opined that “we (the Teranga Lions) have a lot of very good talents and the national team shirt doesn’t belong to anyone.” As for the coach Diouf, he must be congratulated on his courage to give youth a chance, something (former coach) Amara Traoré had never done. Diouf said it himself when he stated (in his post-match press conference) that the U-23s’ performance justified his choice and faith in them as well as it corroborates the FSF’s (Federation of Senegalese Football) new project to bring in more youth and decentralize the national team in order to allow more players from the local level to integrate the team. The new elements have surely helped invigorate the group. And I may thus confidently conclude that their arrival has been a blessing in disguise.