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.
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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.
When Senegal appointed Cisse in March 2015, the country’s football was at its lowest ebb.
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.
🇸🇳 Senegal’s head coach Aliou Cisse has named his 26-man squad to face Egypt 🇪🇬 at the final FIFA World Cup qualifying playoffs this month. 🚨
— Micky Jnr ✪ (@MickyJnr__) March 18, 2022
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.
The ensuing two decades have been spent in frustration at their inability to build on that and putting together their most talented team since has only served to amplify those frustrations.
Chief among Cisse’s critics have been his former international teammates.
When Senegal failed to progress from the 2018 World Cup group stages, El-Hadji Diouf was vocal in his disapproval.
“Winning cannot be achieved if Aliou Cisse remains at the helm of the national team,” he said.
Another former international, Amdy Faye, questioned the psychology of the team.
“We do not have a winning mentality. We have it at 50 percent during the final stages, but to go for the Cup, you need it all the way,” he told France24. “That’s the problem. For this, we must force destiny, and that’s why we put the emphasis on this generation.”
Reaching the 2019 AFCON final, in which the Teranga Lions were beaten by Algeria, was not even enough to turn the tide of negative criticism, which metastasised into dissatisfaction about a style of play that was deemed too rudimentary, regardless of the results.
Cisse is known for his quiet disposition and acceptance of pressure as “part of football”. But even he felt the need to retort.
“I accept criticism when it’s constructive. They must first accept that I am the national coach and that I make the decisions. After that there is no problem, we can discuss,” he said.
“I speak with some of them and they have their own vision, but I’m the coach. Especially that they are not even trainers, so they should let me do my job.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the amount of pressure Cisse has had to live with was the statement by Augustin Senghor, president of the Senegal FA (FSF), on the eve of the AFCON final.
Against all of the scepticism that had dogged Cisse, Senghor had been an important voice, fighting the corner of the national team boss, while still setting ambitious targets.
His response to Diouf’s criticism was to dismiss it as provoked by bitterness, and he was only too happy to renew the former captain’s contract despite the disappointing eliminations from the 2017 AFCON and 2018 World Cup.
In doing so, he pointed to Cisse’s work in “bringing the Senegalese team up to an appreciable level” and described him as “one of the best coaches in the world”.
Going into the AFCON in Cameroon this year, even Senghor appeared to break character.
“As big as Senegal is regarded in African football, we cannot continue to be content with participating and getting moral victory of second place,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Senegal must win and the coach understands the goal and objective.”
And even as the Teranga Lions booked their place in the final, Senghor stated that anything less than victory against Egypt would count as a “failure”.
That triumph in Cameroon has seen many people curtail their criticism of Cisse.
His demeanour has now come to be looked upon as a virtue.
“He is a big brother to his players and never gets carried away,” former teammate Salif Diao said. The country’s president, Macky Sall, praised him for his “quiet strength and imperturbable serenity”.
Even Diouf has softened. Perhaps Cisse’s willingness to extend a conciliatory hand, bringing him into the national team fold as a sort of ambassador, played a major role.
“As a player, he spoke less and performed more,” the two-time African Player of the Year told Al Jazeera. “The reason he’s so different is that strong ability to speak only when it matters.”
That success, and the belated acknowledgement that has accompanied, was built on a sense of family and team spirit.
Cisse described his relationship with the players as akin to a father-son one, and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy hailed the “team spirit and the team effort” as “what makes Senegal special under his guidance”.
When Senegal lifted the AFCON trophy earlier this year, Mane, who scored the decisive penalty, dedicated the victory to the coach.
“This trophy is a result of the manager’s commitment to his team and it is heartwarming for us to win it for him, our people and the country.”
This newfound love will be put to the test very quickly against Egypt.
Cisse has largely kept the team that was triumphant in Cameroon, favouring continuity for what is a tense, unpredictable encounter.
For this second final across two legs, the stakes are even higher for Senegal: A place at the World Cup but also the continuation of Cisse’s long-term project.