For Aliou Cisse, Senegal’s first-ever Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title earlier this year offered only a brief respite.
Since taking over as the national team’s head coach seven years ago, the 45-year-old has lived under almost suffocating pressure, tasked at every turn with returning the national team to the same heights as the 2002 team – which he captained.
Finally winning, at the third time of asking, in Cameroon last month, and beating Egypt in the AFCON final, Cisse’s place in the pantheon of Senegalese football was cemented definitively. However, his job security was not.
Detailed in his contract is a second provision that must be met: A place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
So, for the second time in two months, the former PSG and Portsmouth player has a “final” to prepare for. Once again, it is Egypt standing in the way, this time across two legs.
“We are facing two finals which are important for Senegalese football,” Cisse said. “These games against Egypt, the team that we have just beaten on penalties in the AFCON final, are still very difficult.”
Egypt, aiming to reach its fourth World Cup, will host the first leg in Cairo on March 25 with the return leg in Dakar four days later.
Under previous coach Alain Giresse, Senegal had failed to progress beyond the group stage at that year’s AFCON. It had been three World Cups since the team’s debut at the tournament in 2002 and, despite having a promising crop of talent coming through the youth system, Senegal were in dire need of quality in key positions.
Cisse, with his brand of quiet leadership, was tapped for the job following his work with the under-23s at the 2012 London Olympics.
The scale of the rebuild, though ambitious, was key to winning hearts and minds.
“When I became their coach in 2015, I told them our target is to reach the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations final,” he told CAF Online.
Now, with the likes of Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye, Saliou Ciss and Cheikhou Kouyate rising through the ranks, and diaspora talent like Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, Boulaye Dia and Abdou Diallo added into the mix, Senegal have a talented pool to choose from and also shot up in the FIFA world rankings.
But with the improvement and the ambition came pressure.
Cisse can be cast as a victim of his own success, both as a player and a manager.
The team’s historic record of underachievement in African football is well documented. However, in reaching the AFCON final and World Cup quarter-finals, both in 2002, the proud footballing nation got a taste for mixing it up with the heavyweights of African and world football.