African coaches go head to head in Afcon final

The career paths of Aliou Cissé and Djamel Belmadi might be similar, but as coaches their conduct and personalities are chalk and cheese. These differences are reflected in their teams.

Aliou Cissé’s dreadlocks look like a majestic mane, which is fitting for a man who leads a pack of lions. But unlike the king of the jungle that Cissé resembles and the animal from which the Senegal team draws its nickname, the Lions of Teranga are yet to rule the continent by claiming the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) crown.

They came close in 2002 with a certain Monsieur Cissé as captain. But another pack of lions, the indomitable kind from Cameroon, beat them in a dramatic and entertaining final that was decided by penalties in Bamako, Mali. Almost two decades later, with Cissé now Senegal’s coach, the Lions of Teranga have another shot at continental supremacy.

Senegal take on Algeria at Cairo International Stadium in the Afcon final on Friday 19 July. A familiar face will sit, make that pace furiously, adjacent to Cissé when friends meet for the second time in the space of 10 days. But this time around, unlike in the group stage where the Desert Foxes beat the Lions of Teranga 1-0, it will be a special meeting for Cissé and Algeria’s coach, Djamel Belmadi. 

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The two men – born a day apart 43 years ago, Cissé on 24 March and Belmadi the following day – have made this final an all-African coaches affair, something that last happened in 1998 when Jomo Sono of South Africa led Bafana Bafana against Mahmoud El-Gohary’s Egypt. Before that it was Fred Osam-Duodu of Ghana and Uganda’s Peter Okee who did it for the first time in 1978. The main reason for this rare occurrence is that African federations seldom trust their own, preferring instead to look west for coaches.   

“This is a great message that we are sending to our federations in Africa. It’s amazing to come up against him in the final,” Belmadi said. “I have known Aliou Cissé for a long time. We come from the same place in France. We used to play against each other. The only difference between me and him is that he has been with his team for four years, and he is doing great [while I have been at the helm for less than a year]. To play this final, against Senegal, against my friend, is amazing. I hope that the decision-makers can think more about this and they trust our young coaches.”

Teams that reflect their coach’s character

The way these teams celebrated their passage to the final, and how they got there, reveals much about their make-up. Both these teams reached the final after dramatic finishes. Algeria booked their place with a stunning free kick from Riyad Mahrez in the last minute of optional time. The bench ran on to the pitch to celebrate the crushing blow they inflicted on Nigeria. The celebrations that followed afterwards were over the top.

Chants of “One! Two! Three! Viva l’Algerie!” swept over Cairo International Stadium. They were so loud that they were probably heard in Algiers. In Paris, on Bastille Day, Algerians took over the country to celebrate the Desert Foxes’ first Afcon final appearance since 1990, when they won the tournament on home soil. Algerians don’t do anything in half measures, when they do something they go all out. 

It’s almost like how their team has played in this competition. They were the best team in the group stage, where they gave it their all in every match, leaving everything on the pitch. Baghdad Bounedjah has grafted, harassing defenders and chasing lost causes. His performance has been full of heart.

Senegal’s reaction to their win was more measured. The players jumped in jubilation while Cissé fell to his knees and raised his arms. The euphoria quickly subsided because they have a job to do. Even in celebration, Cissé doesn’t lose his senses. The Lions of Teranga haven’t exactly roared their way to the final. They just found a way to get there by doing what was expected of them. Reaching the final isn’t an achievement, this talented generation has no choice but to win the tournament. That’s the only thing Senegalese expect.

Even though the two coaches’ career paths are similar – growing up in Champigny-sur-Marne in France, making their names in Ligue 1 and captaining their countries in Afcon – Cissé and Belmadi are chalk and cheese. As coaches, their teams are such a strong reflection of their personalities that even the most minute of details embodies their different characteristics. 

Passion vs composure 

Cissé is calm and composed while Belmadi is fiery and combative. The Algerian’s passion could fuel a jet. Belmadi doesn’t back down from a fight. He paces frantically in the technical area, obsessively watching and reacting to every moment and every touch from his team. South African referee Victor Gomes, who was the fourth official in Algeria’s semifinal win over Nigeria, had his hands full with Belmadi, who left his area a number of times trying to follow the action. He didn’t leave his technical area intentionally, his passion simply got the better of him. 

When a Nigerian journalist asked Belmadi if he condemned Ramy Bensebaini’s conduct, referring to the incident in which the Algerian defender slapped himself with Wilfried Zaha’s hand in an attempt to have the Ivorian forward sent off in their quarterfinal game, Belmadi’s fiery side came out. Before the clash with the Super Eagles he had brushed aside that question, saying it wasn’t the “place to talk about this”. 

“Are you serious?” Belmadi barked. “We are playing the semifinals [and this is what you want to talk about]? Are you from Nigeria? You have your coach in front of you, his team has just played a great game and you are talking about this?” 

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Cissé controls his emotions. Like a lion, his every step in Senegal’s technical area is calculated, composed and doesn’t attract unnecessary attention until he pounces. He marshalls his “kingdom” like the king of the jungle, in complete control. He is diplomatic and chooses his words and his fights carefully. Psychological warfare is his best weapon.  

“I have unlimited trust in my players and I felt they want to achieve something,” Cissé said after the win over Tunisia. “They did everything that was needed to win. This generation is better than the 2002 one. My players told me they will be better than us, and they did.

“My relationship with them is like a father-son one. When I became their coach in 2015, I told them our target is to reach the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations final. That was the way to convince Kalidou Koulibaly to play for Senegal instead of France. Now here we are.” 

In search of their maiden Afcon 

Koulibaly will watch the final from the stands after picking up two successive yellow cards in the quarterfinals and semifinals. His teammates will look to win the Afcon for him, for their coach who couldn’t do it 17 years ago (the pain of missing one of the penalties likely etched in his memory), but importantly they will look to do it for their country, which isn’t familiar with the taste of Afcon success. 

It’s a mystery how Senegal have never won Afcon with all their talent over the years. Apart from 2002, they haven’t even come close to becoming African champions. Cissé has been painstakingly building this team to do what his generation couldn’t. 

In Senegal’s way is a team that has conquered the continent before, but that was so long ago that Mahrez and Ismaël Bennacer weren’t yet born. Afcon will pit a composed Senegalese side looking for their first taste of continental glory against an Algerian side that’s bringing back the glory days one game at a time, under a manager who has fired up a team that has always had talent but haven’t shown it when it matters.

The passion that fuels Algeria and Senegal’s composure could produce a spectacular end to a historic Afcon, one that has been played in June-July for the first time and with 24 teams instead of 16. What’s certain is that the “cradle of civilisation” will usher in a new era for these two nations, the winners will leave with not only the most prized possession in African football but also a win that will cement the foundation of their young coach’s career.  

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