Senegal, crowned African champions for the first time in February 2022, are favourites to win the AFCON 2023 (January 13-February 11). Since 200 and 2008, Egypt’s double, no defending champion has managed to retain his crown. In the land of Teranga, optimism seems to prevail among fans and observers alike. Even if superstition lurks around the champion’s curse.
Thousands of Senegalese fans will be in Yamoussoukro to support the Lions of Teranga in a tough Group C. Senegalese fans will be out in force for this 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. Not just because of Côte d’Ivoire’s accessibility, but also because they don’t want to hear the story of Sadio Mané and Co’s quest for a 2nd title in a row.
A relaxed team, confident fans
Although the streets of the capital Dakar are far from effervescent, optimism prevails in the hearts of the people.Senegal’s first AFCON victory in 2022, however, seems to have uninhibited a whole country.“I believe in back to back because the team has gained in maturity. The group has been strengthened qualitatively, and there will be less pressure compared to the 2021 edition,” explains Benjamin Sagna.
For her part, Maïmouna justifies her optimism by the increased experience of Aliou Cissé’s group. Senegal could well retain their title in Côte d’Ivoire, given the quality of the squad we have,” she begins.The most important parameter is the experience acquired by certain players who are in their 4th CAN and others even in their 5th. From the failure to reach the 1st round in 2015 to the 2022 title, there are many lessons learned by the players and coach Aliou Cissé. With the squad now strengthened by youngsters and the experience of the senior players, Senegal has what it takes to remain on the throne of African soccer”, adds this lawyer by training.
This prevailing optimism is also the result of recent successful outings, notably against Brazil (win by 2-4) and against Senegal’s bête noire, Cameroon (win by 1-0). Their solid World Cup campaign, despite the absence of their playmaker (Sadio Mané), combined with an unbeaten record in the qualifiers, have only strengthened the confidence of the fans.“Senegal’s chances are real, because since the title, results have been positively consistent.And the current group is fairly balanced,” says Seydina Sine. However, we mustn’t forget that the AFCON is by nature very demanding with the defending champions. Since Sudan in 1972, 12 African champions have been eliminated in the 1st round of the following edition, the latest being Algeria in 2022.
The first to break the champion’s curse
Retaining one’s title has become one of the rarest exercises in sport. This is even truer in African soccer, where since 2010, the winner of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations has had a hard time defending his title. In Senegal, however, there seems to be a great deal of faith in this.“It won’t be easy to achieve the back-to-back. Egypt achieved the treble in 2006 and 2010, but failed to qualify in 2012. Since then, no defending champion has reached the quarter-finals of the next edition. Senegal can put an end to this curse. Just as France, the 2018 world champions who reached the final in 2022, broke the curse of the world champion, eliminated in the 1st round of the following edition”, insisted Maïmouna Ndongo.
To succeed in following in Egypt’s footsteps, they will need to rely on new relays: the young guard, according to Benjamin Sagna.“It’s true that there are some good teams, but each competition has its own realities and surprises. That’s why I’m focusing on the potential of Aliou Cissé’s team. I think the key to retaining the title is youth. Most of the potential first-choice players were absent in Cameroon. So I’m convinced that this is a godsend for Senegal. Add to that the experience and competitive spirit of senior players like Mané, Koulibaly, Gana Guèye and Kouyaté, and I’m more than optimistic,” he assures us.
Aliou Cissé has had to integrate several injured or convalescing players into his 27-strong squad. Players who have a major influence on the Senegalese coach’s certainties. Not enough to shake the fans’ dream of a back-to-back.“I’m not particularly worried, far from it. Looking at the squad, the injuries and absences are compensated for by double the profiles in each position. Apart from Sadio Mané, who is irreplaceable,” explains Seydina Sine. I have faith in Aliou Cissé on this point, because let’s not forget that at the last Africa Cup of Nations, too, the 11-man squad was decimated in the first two games,” he recalls.
Thanks to his longevity with the national team (9 years at the helm in March 2024), Aliou Cissé has also succeeded in building an ineffable Tanière.“It’s a close-knit group, a healthy dressing room. The coach is lucky to have a group like this, where the players are very friendly. It’s a foundation on which we can build. We’re in a tough group (at the AFCON) with our neighbors, and Cameroon, however borrowed they may be, remain formidable in competition,” added Maïmouna Ndongo.