Long-term loyalty to managers is not a characteristic for which African football is famed. Either side of their all-too-brief but dynamic stay at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria announced two changes of manager, and there was still uncertainty on Thursday over who will guide them in next month’s World Cup play-offs against a Ghana team also bedding in a new boss.
To stay in the post of national manager for 70 games, the milestone Aliou Cisse will reach with Senegal in Sunday’s Afcon final, makes him a rarity.
He is also a native of the team he leads, which marks him out as unusual on a continent where the first instinct among leading clubs and the more successful federations seems to be to hire coaches from abroad, usually from Europe. It means that, since he was appointed in 2015, Cisse has been obliged to speak as a pathfinder, asked countless times why he stands out, being from Sub-Saharan Africa and in charge of a sub-Saharan national team.
“You need to put that to the directors of football around Africa,” he tends to reply. “I’m convinced there are many good coaches on our continent.”
Cisse is one match away from being regarded as not just a very good coach but the greatest in his country’s history, and it is a measure of his federation’s confidence in the 45-year-old that whenever he has fallen just short of a legacy achievement they have stuck with him.
He was the second manager to have led the country to a World Cup finals, but could not emulate the first — a Frenchman, the late Bruno Metsu — by taking Senegal deep into the knockout phase. In Russia in 2018, Senegal were stuck in their group by the narrowest of margins, the ‘fair-play’ tiebreaker: they had collected two more yellow cards in their matches than Japan, with whom they were level on points and goal-difference.
Afcons have tantalised Cisse. In 2017, there was a quarter-final defeat to the eventual champions, Cameroon. His next ended in a 1-0 loss to Algeria in the final.
Cisse’s playing experience armed him with the tools to respond to those setbacks. In 2002, he was captain of the talented Senegal who lost an Afcon final to Cameroon; five months later they made history at the World Cup by defeating France in the opening match and advancing to the last eight.
Cisse marshalled their tenacious midfield, and it was hard not to recall the vigour of his tackling when that count-up of yellow cards dented his first World Cup campaign as a manager. When he began a four year spell in the English Premier League in the mid-2000s, Cisse gained notoriety: he received two yellow cards — one later rescinded — on his debut for Birmingham City, and soon afterwards embarked on a sequence in which he was booked seven times in 10 games.
He can be tough on opponents still, as his verbal joust with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp — with whom he shares the prized asset that is Sadio Mane — ahead of this Afcon showed. Klopp had unwisely referred to the tournament as “little”. Cisse, angered by the changing deadline for clubs releasing players for Afcon, chided the German and European clubs in general for their lordly attitude.
Burkina Faso 1 Senegal 3: player ratings
Most coaches’ preparations were disrupted by late availability, Covid complications, and injuries. Cisse has paced Senegal’s campaign carefully around those obstacles. He is frequently criticised for his safe gameplans, and was again when his team came through the group phase having scored only one goal. But he sensed momentum would build once captain Kalidou Koulibaly was back from injury and Ismaila Sarr, the winger, from a long recuperation.
Sarr was a decisive substitute in the 3-1 knockout victories over Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso. Koulibaly’s overhead volley, leading to the opening goal against the Burkinabe showed he is back to his fully-mobile best.
A side built around the spine of Edu Mendy, the Chelsea goalkeeper, Napoli’s Koulibaly, Paris Saint-Germain’s Idrissa Gana Gueye and the electric Mane are formidable finalists, and, across Africa, many will be rooting for the Senegal-born coach.
Among those applauding Cisse is Pitso Mosimane, the manager whose Al Ahly squad will on Saturday take on Monterrey in Abu Dhabi for a place in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup. Mosimane, from South Africa, is the first coach from Sub-Saharan Africa to be in charge of the Cairo giants, and like Cisse, knows that makes him a pioneer.
“Africa must start employing Africans,” Mosimane posted, paying tribute to Cisse’s making it two Afcon finals in a row as a coach.
What Cisse will not want is another silver medal. He has a pair of them already from Afcons — more than enough.