When Aliou Cisse looks to either side, he sees men he has trusted for years. Should the Senegal manager wish to consult his goalkeeping coach, the man he hails is Tony Sylva, his team-mate in the Teranga Lions’ 2002 World Cup squad. Among his assistants is Omar Daf, a defender for the side that reached the quarter-finals that year, while coordinating the team’s movements is Lamine Diatta, the former Rennes, Lyon and Newcastle centre-back.
It is a core of talented, dedicated coaches who know exactly what it took to bring Senegal, whose international achievements had been limited before then, into the global spotlight a decade and a half ago. And it is a cadre of characters who hope to shatter a mould and press home the case that African coaches should be given more respect than to be overlooked in favour of the troupe of travelling European veterans who routinely acquire jobs on this continent.
The bespectacled Cisse – a cultured, fiercely intelligent individual who coached many of Senegal’s current squad in his previous role with the Under-23s – is an impressive character and it was illuminating to hear him speak to media after Thursday night’s 2-0 victory over Zimbabwe in Franceville. That win – whose margin should have been considerably more convincing – ensured Senegal will top Group B at the Africa Cup of Nations but Cisse’s work is part of a grander vision.
“This is a great generation,” he said of his squad. “What we’re changing is the mindset. It’s not just about playing a pass or some technical skill, it’s about raising the whole level of African football. That’s our objective.”
Cisse, who captained that successful group 15 years ago, knows what it takes to lead an African team to the top. Yet it remains rare for locally-born coaches to receive opportunities and even when they do their positions are generally precarious. In 2013, while the late Stephen Keshi gave his post-match press conference after leading his country to victory in the Cup of Nations final, journalists were receiving texts suggesting he would be sacked in favour of Herve Renard.
That did not transpire but Keshi, who died last June, would have been forgiven for seeing it coming. In 2006, having led Togo to an unlikely first World Cup appearance, he was replaced by the German Otto Pfister before the finals. Such decisions are very much the norm and, while the short-term reflex towards individuals who might have greater experience of European and international opponents is understandable to some degree, there is a sense that the merry-go-round of the same old faces has held African teams back.
It was refreshing, then, to see locally-based coached Baciro Cande lead minnows Guinea-Bissau to this year’s tournament and – thus far – more than hold his own against more experienced opponents. Guinea-Bissau deservedly drew with hosts Gabon in the opening game and came close to shocking Cameroon in their second Group A fixture. Cande replaced the Portuguese coach Paulo Torres in March and promptly turned the “Djurtus’” fortunes around.
“He knows how to talk and connect with the players, and as a local coach he can reach them in a different way. He knows the country’s football inside out and it was a big plus that he could come in and use all his experience,” said the former Guinea-Bissau captain, Bruno Fernandes, in an interview with the Guardian.
That cannot be underestimated, particularly when most African nations select players from a range of club backgrounds. The use of having somebody with easy, natural access to the country’s culture and language at hand can sometimes be underestimated; first and foremost, of course, Cande is clearly an excellent coach.
Cisse and Cande are two of just four African coaches at this year’s Cup of Nations. The others, DR Congo’s Florent Ibenge and the Zimbabwe coach Callisto Pasuwa, have both enjoyed some early success here – the latter oversaw a 2-2 draw for the minnows against highly-fancied Algeria – and although it might not be enough to turn the tide just yet, their feats constitute further evidence that African coaches can thrive given the chance.
Ibenge, an impressive figure who took the Congolese to third place in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, has certainly been given time and it is an example others may wish to follow. He has co-managed local side AS Vita along with the national team since taking over in 2014; that has not stopped the Leopards from improving rapidly under his tutelage and, as well as looking a likely contender for the title in Gabon, has put them in with a realistic chance of a first World Cup appearance since 1974.
The more Cisse, Ibenge and company succeed, the more tempted others may be to place their faith closer to home. Cisse, in particular, is just 40 and has the potential to lay down a dynasty with Senegal and his loyal, seasoned support staff. Should Senegal’s dynamic unit win their first-ever Cup of Nations this year then perhaps his noble goal of improving African football’s level will be closer to attainment.