Algeria and Senegal battle for Cup of Nations supremacy
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Yearning, redemption, identity and amity are among a plethora of threads intertwining elegantly for the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations final on Friday night in Cairo.
Algeria have not claimed the crown since 1990. Senegal, their adversaries at the Cairo International Stadium, have never lifted the trophy.
Senegal coach Aliou Cissé was skipper of the side that lost to Cameroon in 2002. His was among the three penalties Senegal missed after the 0-0 draw in Bamako.
Nearly two decades later, Cissé leads Africa’s top ranked team into the final against a side that has the most impressive stats of the tournament.
Djamel Belmadi’s players have scored 12 goals and conceded twice. Senegal’s rearguard has struck six times and been breached only once in its six games.
That lapse came in the Group C defeat to Algeria. Even if Cissé’s men have overcome their psychological inferiorities after that loss, they will be diminished physically. Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the reasons for such defensive stinginess, will be absent through suspension.
“I think it's the match of a lifetime for a lot of players in the team and for Algeria," said veteran Algeria midfielder Adlene Guedioura.
The 33-year-old, who is the oldest member of the squad, added: “The coach really knows the players and what he wants. The good thing is he knows how to get through to the players and how to listen.”
Belmadi plied his trade in the midfield over 14 years between 1995 and 2009 at clubs ranging from Paris Saint-German, Marseilles and Cannes in France to Manchester City and Southampton in England.
His coaching career started at Lekwiya Sports Club in Qatar in 2010. Seven major trophies followed at the helm of, admittedly, one of the best financed sides in the land before the Algerian football association offered him the task in August 2018 of taking the national side to the 2022 World Cup.
A Cup of Nations final within a year of accession appears to be judgment vindicated.
"Of course we can lose this match,” said Belmadi. “We have an opponent that is number one in the Fifa rankings for Africa. They were at the World Cup. We were eliminated in the qualifiers for that tournament.
"If you get to the final, the aim is obviously to win it. The game in the group stage wasn't decisive but now it is and that's the difference."
Cissé has led Senegal since March 2015. The 43-year-old enjoyed a 15 year playing career in France and England. However, unlike his Algeria counterpart, Senegal is first senior managerial post.
Nevertheless, the former Senegal international has flourished in the role. He steered them to the 2018 World Cup – their first participation in 16 years - and they are on the brink of a first continental crown. “Seventeen years is a long time since Senegal was last in the final,” said Cissé.
"It is another time now. Lots of my players were still at primary school when we lost and there have been more than half a dozen Cup of Nations tournaments since.
“There have been many disappointments but we are in the final and we want to win the trophy.”
Whether Algeria or Senegal emerges triumphant, a small corner of France will revel in the victory. Both men were brought up in Champigny-sur-Marne, on the south-eastern fringes of Paris. Belmadi was born there. Cissé went to the area after spending his first nine years in Senegal.
Yarn from the Marne
“It’s a remarkable thing that two kids from that district are leading teams in a Cup of Nations final,” said Belmadi. “We have played against each other and I have known Aliou for a very long time. To play this final – Senegal against Algeria – against my friend is amazing.”
What is also astounding for observers of the African game is the fact that the final pits two African coaches against each other for the first time since 1998 when Mahmoud El Gohary led Egypt against Jomo Sono’s South Africa.
“It’s a great message to those responsible for football in Africa,” said Belmadi. “Let’s hope the decision-makers can look at this and trust more of the young Africa coaches.”
Cissé, however, has been less folksy. "I’m not really into the local or international trainer thing as football is for everyone. It’s true me and Djamel both played for our national teams and our associations have given us the chance to lead the sides. We’re very proud of that.
“But it's up to us Africans to have confidence in ourselves, in our boys, in our coaches. Bit by bit the order is changing," he added.
Yarns will be spun about these sons of the Marne who define themselves as outsiders.
Of the 31 Africa Cup of Nations finals since 1957, 16 have been won by international coaches. After the 2019 showdown, it will be 16-16.
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