In the mildness of a late afternoon in Yamoussoukro, administrative capital of Ivory Coast, the Senegal team carried out its last training before facing Gambia this Monday, January 15. A few hours before their entry into the African Cup of Nations (CAN), the reigning champions displayed a mixture of relaxation and serenity in front of around sixty Senegalese journalists. Objective: to show that the Lions of Teranga are the kings of the CAN and that they intend to remain so.

Senegal is one of the favorites, alongside Morocco, semi-finalist of the World Cup in Qatar, and Ivory Coast. Since the coronation of Yaoundé in 2022, the Senegalese, 20th in the FIFA rankings, have confirmed their status by qualifying for the World Cup and the CAN without trembling. Their motivation seems intact. “We only have one star. We want to go win, to continue winning,” said coach Aliou Cissé at a press conference.

The challenge is daunting: since Egypt (winner in 2006, 2008 and 2010), no team on the continent has managed to retain their title. “The players have the same thirst to win as in 2022,” explains Thierno Diallo, commentator on RTS, the Senegalese national radio. They are in a dynamic of victories, at the top of Africa, and want to remain the kings of the continent. One star is not enough for them, they want two, three, four…”

In the squad taken to Yamoussoukro, fifteen players have already been crowned. “There is a mix of experience and youth,” adds Thierno Diallo. There are quality replacements in all positions today. »

Sadio Mané is going through a delicate period

Except that not all players are at their best, starting with star Sadio Mané. At 31, the double African Golden Ball is going through a delicate period. After his failed stint at Bayern Munich, the top scorer in Senegal’s history (36 goals) is struggling to regain his level, even if his latest performances with his club Al-Nassr seem encouraging.

Like him, several executives succumbed to financial proposals from Saudi Arabia: Kalidou Koulibaly at Al-Hilal, Edouard Mendy at Al-Ahli and Habib Diallo at Al-Shabab. “We showed that we were capable of winning by having players in the major European championships,” recalled Aliou Cissé. It’s up to us to show that we can also win with players who play in Saudi Arabia. »

Even if debate is part of Senegalese culture – especially when it comes to football –, few people dare to contradict the coach’s choices. “The results speak in his favor,” recalls Bakary Cissé, journalist at Dsports. He always achieved his goal, except perhaps at the World Cup, where the team aimed for the quarter-finals [the Senegalese were eliminated by England in the round of 16]. But in Qatar, Aliou Cissé had mitigating circumstances, starting with the absence of Sadio Mané, injured. »

If the Senegalese want to remain the masters of African football, they must start by reigning over their region. The match against the Gambians, 126th in the FIFA rankings, has the flavor of a derby. Bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Gambia, which created a surprise at CAN 2022 by reaching the quarter-finals, is “nested” in Senegal. Relations between populations are ancestral. And when they are not opponents, the two teams support each other. “For around fifteen years, our group has been twinned with that of the Gambians,” assures Issa Laye Diop, president of the 12th Gaïndé, the main association of Senegalese supporters.

“The match has already started on social networks”

On Sunday, Aliou Cissé even declared that he was cousins ​​with the president of the Gambian Football Federation. “Senegal and Gambia are two countries but they form one people,” explains Bakary Cissé. We have the same surnames, the same culture and the same dialects. Only our official languages ​​[the Gambia is English-speaking] are different. » But when it comes to football, the rivalry is there. “For about a week, the match has already started on social networks,” notes Fatima Sylla, journalist at 2STV. These are squabbles, little provocations between brothers and sisters. »

The competition started off difficult for the Gambians. A few days before flying to Ivory Coast, the players boycotted their final training session in order to obtain a qualification bonus of around 500,000 euros for the entire group. It took the intervention of the head of state, Adama Barrow, for the sports ministry to give in to the team’s demands.

Then, after taking off from Banjul on Wednesday, the Scorpions plane turned around after nine minutes of flight following a loss of pressure and oxygen in the cabin. “If the journey had lasted thirty minutes longer, we would all have died,” said Belgian coach Tom Sainfiet. The Gambians finally left the next day for Yamoussoukro, without passing through Abidjan, aboard a plane chartered by Air Côte d’Ivoire.

“Be careful, Scorpios are more toxic when they lack oxygen,” warned the breeder in a joke. However, how resistant will they be to heat? Their coach, like that of the Teranga Lions, regretted that the match was played at 2 p.m. locally. The Yamoussoukro sun will then be close to its zenith.