In the streets of Yamoussoukro, capital of Ivory Coast, the defeat of the national team on Thursday January 18 against Nigeria (1-0) was quickly forgotten. “Being discouraged is not Ivorian! », chanted Elephants supporters in a maquis (a street restaurant) near the Charles-Konan-Banny stadium, before going to down a few beers to the sound of zouglou. They were then joined by a handful of supporters from Senegal and Cameroon. While waiting for the clash between these two flagship nations of the continent, Friday January 19 in the first round of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), the football celebration continues.

Crowned champion for the first time in its history in 2022 in Cameroon, Senegal arrived in Ivory Coast with the label of favorite. Facing Gambia in their first match, Aliou Cissé’s players did not tremble (3-0). In the 4th minute, Marseillais Pape Gueye opened the scoring before the brilliant Lamine Camara, just 20 years old, scored a magnificent double. The game of the reigning African champion is fast, fluid and impactful. Ranked second best African nation behind Morocco in the FIFA rankings, the team is following an upward curve. “We are impatiently waiting for this match against Cameroon,” assured Aliou Cissé at a press conference. We are ready, confident and aware. »

The balance of power between Senegal and Cameroon, five-time winners of the competition, seems to be reversing in recent years. While they were in numerical superiority for a half against Guinea, the Indomitable Lions were held in check (1-1) for their first outing. “We no longer have the right to make mistakes,” recognized Rigobert Song, their coach.

The team is rebuilding, only half of the current starters played in the 2022 World Cup and the latest results show that Cameroon is in a downward spiral. In Qatar, he was eliminated in the first round, despite a prestigious victory against the Brazilian “Seleçao” (1-0). But the players who made up the attack line are now aging, sidelined or injured, like Vincent Aboubakar, top scorer in the last CAN with 8 goals.

Indomitable Lions weakened

The Cameroonians no longer have a senior player playing in a major European team. Their performances are lackluster, like their draw in Libya (1-1) at the end of November during qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. The group is also undermined by tensions between players. For having been authorized to play one last match with his club Manchester United, goalkeeper André Onana missed the entire preparation for the CAN as well as the first match. His absence, perceived as a privilege, caused teeth to grind in the den of the Indomitable Lions.

Finally, the team is parasitized by business. Samuel Eto’o, president of the Cameroonian federation (Fécafoot), has been under fire since his election in December 2021. The former FC Barcelona star is accused of suspicion of match-fixing, a personal sponsorship contract with a sports betting site and authoritarian management. Members of its federation even sent letters to FIFA and the Confederation of African Football to denounce its mode of governance.

If the Cameroonian Lions are weakened before facing Senegal, they nevertheless promise to remain indomitable. “You are going to have a match of the dimension of the Cameroon national team, when we find ourselves in difficult situations,” maintains Rigobert Song. We remain the lions with five stars and the impression of always being above everything. »

Senegal has only beaten Cameroon once at the CAN, in 1990 in the group stage. The Cameroonians won the other three, including the 2002 final on penalties. “We like this kind of confrontation, we have no fear. On the contrary, we think that playing Senegal is better for us,” declares the Cameroonian coach.

“In Senegal, we are a people who do not speak much, very humble,” retorts Aliou Cissé, the coach of the Lions of Teranga. We have enormous respect for Cameroon. We will approach this meeting calmly but with the determination to continue our journey. »

This serenity is perhaps only a facade. At the end of the press conference, a Cameroonian journalist reported rumors that Aliou Cissé’s salary had not been paid for six months. After smiling and looking at a member of the Senegalese federation who tried to evade the question, the coach gave an equivocal answer to say the least: “It is a hungry coach who leads the Senegal national team. »