The other sides to have reached the biggest fixture in African football without winning it — the likes of Burkina Faso, Uganda, Libya — largely upset the odds in reaching an unlikely final, but Senegal stand shoulder to shoulder with the continent’s heavyweights, albeit without the star to show for their rich heritage.
In Cameroon, they’re aiming to become the first side since Egypt in 2010 to reach consecutive AFCON finals, having been defeated by Algeria in 2019, 17 years after their first loss in the showpiece fixture — against this year’s Nations Cup hosts, in 2002.
The 2002 Senegal vintage remains one of Africa’s greatest teams, yet their place in the broader global memory is largely due to their exploits at that year’s World Cup in Japan and South Korea — where they defeated holders France in the tournament opener and became only the second African team to reach the Last Eight — rather than their near-miss in the AFCON final.
In the fifth Nations Cup final to be won on penalties, Senegal lost 3-2 to Cameroon in Bamako, Mali, and a glittering generation missed their chance to become the Teranga Lions’ AFCON pioneers.
Current head coach Aliou Cisse has experienced both the delight and the heartbreak of Senegal’s footballing glories; he was part of the side that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 having missed the decisive penalty in the AFCON shootout defeat by Cameroon, and he oversaw the Lions’ 2019 final defeat by Algeria.
He’s adamant that the weight of history — the successes and the failures — can fuel Senegal’s bid to right the wrongs of the past, rather than encumber the current squad with additional pressure as they look to break new ground for the West African nation.
“Our country loves progressing, and up until now we haven’t always done great things,” Cisse told ESPN.
“We’re aware of it, we know our days of failure, our tears, our complicated moments, but that’s football; it makes up our experience, it makes up our life.
“Another page has turned now, and we want to be part of the generation that can win it.
It’s a motivation, every day, but we know it’s a marathon and we have to
continue every day, going to the end, where we can find the light.”
Cisse, who represented Birmingham City and Portsmouth in the Premier League, is already a legend in his homeland regardless of how Senegal perform in their African Cup of Nations semifinal against Burkina Faso on Wednesday, but he’s acutely aware that the achievements of the ’02 greats ultimately didn’t result in a maiden African crown.
That acknowledgment has powered his unrelenting focus during his near-seven-year tenure at the head of the Teranga Lions, in which he returned them to the World Cup and dragged them from No. 64 in the FIFA World Ranking to the top 20.