"Cinderella Strikes Gold: Underdog Nigerians Turn Back Argentina. The Nigerian Eagles have landed … on the Olympic Gold Medal Stand". Those words emblazoned the Athens Daily, a newspaper printed in Athens, Georgia, where the Super Eagles of Nigeria became the first African side to win a major international football tournament.
The team that wrote headlines across the world in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics contained many of the African stars that shone in the 1990s; players such as Kanu, Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Victor Ikpeba and Emmanuel Amuneke. A side of bravery, mental and physical endurance, made up of gifted players that could come from behind or hold onto a lead if needed – a group able to score from distance, with power in the air too.
Africa do not usually boast such strong sides at international tournaments. Nigeria of the 1990s and then Cameroon in the 2000s, were able to hold their own with the very best however. And these teams handed Africa back-to-back Olympic gold medals. Nigeria progressed through the competition beating the likes of Brazil and Argentina to claim gold in 1996. Cameroon repeated the feat in Sydney. Both teams’ mental strength was a big part of their eventual success.
Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics and the world is seeing another African team with echoes of the strength of Nigeria and Cameroon in the shape of Senegal’s Lions of Teranga. Abdoukarime Diouf’s men have kept their strength and shape since defeating Oman in the qualifying process. The 46-year-old has built a team not just with style, but substance too. Senegal score when they need to score and can form a solid defence and stand firm when needed too, something which frustrates opponents.
When Senegal beat Oman 2-0, the second strike came with just two minutes left on the clock. It was a vital goal to relieve pressure as Oman pressed for an equaliser. Senegal not only needed to stay focused, but also score again to calm nerves. This African outfit are a team that never give up easily. In Manchester, against Olympic hosts Great Britain, Senegal were one goal down until the 81st minute, until a superb pass from Metz midfielder Sadio Mane opened up their opponents’ defence and found Moussa Konate, who finished in style. Senegal showed mental strength, giving everything until the final whistle. While the result may not be memorable on its own, it was a reminder of what Nigeria did against Brazil in 1996, scoring a last minute equaliser to take the game to extra time and then claim victory.
“With that result behind us and the fantastic spirit in our team, I believe that anything is possible for us here”, said striker Moussa Konate, after beating Uruguay 2-0, directly after the draw with Great Britain.
Senegal’s physique remains a threat for many of the teams they face. It allows the Africans to dominate their opponents, as was clearly in evidence against both Great Britain and Uruguay. Of course, that advantage has also caused them problems, as they tackle often. Against the British, Senegal committed 17 fouls and received three yellow cards. And it became worse against Uruguay, with Abdoulaye Ba sent off for a bad challenge on Luis Suarez. His dismissal forced Senegal to play with ten men for an hour – but they still managed to seal victory thanks to two goals from Moussa Konate. It echoed Cameroon at the Sydney Olympics, who were able to beat a Ronaldinho-led Brazil with nine men in the quarter-finals, before going on to win gold.
Moussa Konate now leads the scoring charts with four goals after finding the back of the net once again, to hand Senegal a draw against the United Arab Emirates. The Africans’ strength in the air has also been seen, with the threat they pose from aerial balls clear.
The man in the centre of the pitch, captain Mohamed Diame, provides balance and defensive cover for the team, while other midfielders, like Sadio Mane, bring power and creative ability. However, just as important as Konate’s goals, has been Pape Souare’s attacking intent on the flanks – this is Senegal’s real strength. The Lille man has two assists out of the team’s four goals so far.
If Konate can keep his excellent goalscoring form going and others improve their shooting accuracy, Senegal will be confident of making the gold medal match. Mexico provide a real test in the quarter-finals, and the Central Americans have not yet conceded a goal in the tournament. But if the Lions of Teranga reproduce their group stage performances, they are capable of beating the Mexicans.
What makes Senegal’s potential path all the more interesting is that, if they progress, they will not meet favourites Brazil until the final. It is the winner of Japan vs Egypt for Senegal if they see off Mexico. The Africans have come through a group that contained Great Britain and Uruguay, and with style too. Senegal are genuine contenders to write history for Africa, just as Nigeria and Cameroon did.