Senegal's flamboyant assistant coach, Jules Bocandé, can remember the days when the Lions did not know where they would lay their head for the night, never mind about room service and five-star luxury.
Senegal's flamboyant assistant coach, Jules Bocandé, can remember the days when the Lions did not know where they would lay their head for the night, never mind about room service and five-star luxury. In 1990, the year that Cameroon set the World Cup alight, the Senegal Football Federation forgot to enter the qualifiers.
This is different, wildly different. Senegal, the Lions of Teranga, are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the path to the front door of the Hyatt Regency on Osaka Bay has been well beaten by reporters, photographers and camera crews these past few days, all wanting to catch a speck of the fairy dust. Senegal have become the keepers of football's theory of evolution, the precious law which decreed that, one day soon, an African team would become world champions. One more victory, over Turkey in Japan's second city tomorrow, and Senegal will create history by progressing further than any other African nation. Two more? Three? In the Senegal camp now, there is a growing belief that the day has arrived.
"Is the time now or not?" asks Salif Diao to no one in particular. "We have been talking about this among ourselves. If we want to go down in World Cup history now has to be the time. You don't want to be looking back one day, two or four years from now, thinking: 'Yes, that was our chance, if only we'd given a little bit more.' No, we don't want to be saying that."
By precipitating the exit of France, the defending champions, Senegal's influence on the course of this tournament has already been profound. Victory for the team dubbed France B sent shock waves through the established nations. Anything was possible. After France went Argentina and Italy. In their places have come the United States, South Korea and Turkey, who are making their first appearance in a World Cup finals for 48 years.
Like the Cameroonians 12 years ago, the bandwagon is building a momentum all of its own, fuelled as much by what people want Senegal to be as what they really are. The majority of Senegal's players are based in Europe, some of them tried to find alternative countries to play for before settling out of necessity rather than emotion for the land of their birth. The refrain suggested to them by the president, Abdoulaye Wade, is being chorused almost daily now as the Senegalese constituency broadens. "We are playing for Senegal, Africa and France," says El Hadji Diouf, soon of Liverpool, which was slightly at odds with a reported statement of his before the World Cup.
"We owe nothing, absolutely nothing at all to France," he said then. Midfielder Khalilou Fadiga, who was born in Senegal but left at the age of three, openly touted his services to Belgium before being contacted about playing for Senegal, while Sylvain Ndiaye only qualified through a Senegalese grandfather. "I left Charles de Gaulle airport as an unknown," he said. "When I arrived in Senegal for my first international, there was a crowd at the airport and everyone was calling my name." Aliou Cissé, the captain, delightfully refers to the Senegal players as "the photocopies" of the French club system.
But dispensing with the myths – another being that Senegal are somehow furthering the cause of Africa – only strengthens the reality. "Don't be fooled by my look," says Bruno Metsu, the Lion king, whose long mane and taste for white T-shirts and smart suits is designed to confuse. "I'm very serious and I work very hard." The same could be said for his team.
Metsu is the godfather to Senegal's success, the coach appointed after a late-night meeting of the players in a Paris restaurant late in 2000, the chemist who has created an extraordinary sense of kinship out of a disparate group of tiros and journeymen. Far from instilling some sense of discipline into his side, Metsu has pursued a rigid policy of laissez-faire. But many of his players have at last been given a real focus for their ambition.
"I am not a policeman," says Metsu. "I am a football coach. When I am with my team, I regard myself as a friend. My players have complete freedom." Metsu encourages the players to have a drink together, to eat together and talk together. "Far better that than have them sitting in their rooms playing with computers." They can talk to the press, if they wish, and because no one forces them they are happy to oblige. The foyer of the Hyatt Regency, part crèche, part debating chamber, is a testimony to the easy-going regime.
On Wednesday, Metsu saw the strain in his players' eyes, abandoned the morning training session and cancelled the one in the afternoon. "But the smile was back on their faces today," he laughs. And almost permanently on the face of Jules Bocandé. "This team is a family," he says. "We have so much fun together, so much banter – exactly what we didn't have when I was a player."Reuse content