Aliou Cisse is about to experience his third FIFA World Cup™ and his second in a row as Senegal head coach. Four years on from Russia 2018, the Lions of Teranga head into the latest edition of the tournament as reigning African champions, having won their first ever CAF Africa Cup of Nations title in 2021.
Cisse seemed to be brimming with confidence, on the back of this remarkable achievement, when he spoke to FIFA+ about his aims, aspirations and the way he is preparing his players for their upcoming World Cup campaign.
FIFA+: Four years on from Russia 2018, Senegal are about to play in another World Cup, but this time as reigning African champions. Does that put more pressure on you and your team?
Aliou Cisse: Pressure is something you have to deal with as an elite level sportsperson. We have worked tirelessly to achieve what we have. We’ve taken the time we needed to progress.
This group has gained a lot of experience over the past four years, we have matured, and we’re now better prepared. I wouldn’t say that we feel greater pressure, but we are certainly aware of it.
You have now been Senegal head coach for seven years. What are the key factors that have kept you in the job for so long?
The time seems to have flown by. Personally, it feels like I only started yesterday. We’ve set ourselves some very clear objectives and come on slowly but surely, although we’ve often felt [the fans’ and the nations’] impatience.
We’ve remained focused on the most important things. We’re getting closer to achieving our goal with every competition, and the most recent has given us every reason to believe that. Hard work always pays off.
What memories do you have of your campaign at Russia 2018?
It was very difficult to digest what happened at the last World Cup, because we were knocked out for [accumulating] more [yellow] cards [than Japan during the group stage]. But that was four years ago, and we’ve gained a lot of experience since.
There has also been the Africa Cup of Nations [triumph] since then and we are still one of the best teams in Africa. Our players are more experienced now.
They play for big clubs and have come out on top in some very important games over the past four years. The World Cup is all about experience.
I think the Senegalese national team is currently gaining a lot of experience. And, as I’ve said, it’s about taking it one game at a time. Our first objective is to get out of this group.
After that, we’ll be in a knockout tournament, and we have enough experience to leave our mark on this competition.
In preparation for Qatar 2022, you have beaten Bolivia 2-0 and drawn 1-1 with IR Iran. What is your assessment of these two games?
I thought we looked pretty comfortable in both games. Against Bolivia in particular, we were really in control. The game against Iran gave me more to think about.
We had so many chances that we failed to convert, so we must continue to work on our efficiency in front of goal; we need to be more ruthless.
If I were to give a mini-assessment, I would say that the group is happy to be together. These players have known each other for a good while now.
I’m very happy with their level of application and their mentality. It’s this love [for each other and playing for their country], this hard work and their professional side that have allowed us to succeed.
It’s through this solidarity that we will be able to win [games]. There’s no secret. We need to continue working hard and make sure everyone is on the same page.
With just a few weeks to go until Senegal start their World Cup campaign, have you already selected the 26 players who you will be taking with you to Qatar?
I couldn’t sleep very well before, but now, I definitely won’t be able to get any more sleep. I really liked the mentality we showed in our two last warm-up games.
I really appreciated how hard they worked and the willingness they showed. Effectively, it gives me more options. It also means more competition [for places].
To start with, we will try to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet; a balanced group who get on well.
It’s also important to give Senegal the greatest chance of success at the World Cup. I’m delighted to say that I’ve got plenty of options to choose from.
I will sit down with all my coaching staff to decide who we will be taking to the World Cup. But in truth, all the players I’ve used deserve to be there.
I will make some players happy, and others unhappy, but it’s a decision [that has to be made].
Last but not least, President of the Cameroonian Football Federation, Samuel Eto’o, said he believes one of the African nations is capable of winning this upcoming World Cup. What are your thoughts on that?
What Samuel Eto’o has said is the dream of an entire continent. He certainly wants us to go as far as possible, or, at the very least, he doesn’t want to put a limit on what we’re capable of achieving.
Many people who watch African football believe your team is the best placed out of all the African nations who will be at Qatar.
Believe me, all five [African nations] have got a great chance at this World Cup. If all the specialists and those who know their football think we’re the best placed out of all the African teams who have qualified, then we’re delighted to hear that, but that won’t change us.
We’re not getting carried away. It’s up to us to fully prepare ourselves and to do so wisely. But our aim is still the same: to take it a game at a time.
We were knocked out of the last World Cup after just three games. The aim is to get out of this group. And, once we get out of this group, we know that it will be a knockout tournament.
We will leave our mark. People are already looking ahead to the last 16, the quarter-finals, but we will be taking it a game at a time.
The World Cup is all about experience. I don’t think we will make the same mistakes as in 2018. We can’t afford to repeat them.
But often, when I talk about experience, people think I’m only referring to experience on the pitch or sporting experience, but I’m also referring to the experience of preparing for the World Cup.
There are a lot of things that need to be done in preparation. Whether it’s the people who work at the federation, the players themselves, or the Senegalese government, everyone is working together to make sure we go into this World Cup in the best possible shape.