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Football Flowers On The Saharan Shore

The Sahel is an inhospitable strip of land stretching nearly 4,000 kilometres from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to sprawling Sudan and the Red Sea,
It is home to many good footballers but also to a lot of problems.
When Senegal’s Lions of Teranga cut down World Champions France and roared all the way to the last eight of the 2002 FIFA World Cup1″, many assumed they had come out of nowhere. In fact, the Senegalese were merely the finest practitioners of a footballing renaissance occurring on the unforgiving plains of the Sahel, a region perched perilously on the windswept and ever-advancing edges of the mighty Sahara Desert in North Africa.
Taking its name from the Arabic sahil, meaning shore, the Sahel is an inhospitable strip of land stretching nearly 4,000 kilometres from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to sprawling Sudan and the Red Sea. It separates the relative prosperities of the Maghreb to the North from the Gold Coast and great plains to the south and contains such romantic remnants of the past as Timbuktu and Bobo-Dioulasso. It is a place where cultures, religions and languages come together.
It is also one of the most environmentally damaged and impoverished places on earth. “Countries in the Sahel suffer from deep financial troubles, which naturally hamper their football development,” explains Abdel Moneim Hussein of Sudan and the Football Development Director for the African football confederation (CAF). “Sport can’t be a priority for the governments. How can they consistently produce young talents when the infrastructure is so poor?”
And yet the Sahelian countries can claim a fine history in the game. And if their recent progress is anything to go by, they may have a rich future too.
Twelve years after Cameroon, whose arid northern corner crosses into the Sahel belt, made history by becoming the first African team to reach the quarter-final of a FIFA World Cup™, Senegal arrived in Korea and Japan with big ambitions after finishing a best-ever second in the Africa Nations Cup earlier that year.
And, almost as if planned to maximise dramatic effect, the first game of their first FIFA World Cup™ – also a first for any predominantly Sahelian nation -became the stuff of legend. An inspired and deserved 1-0 victory over holders and former colonisers France was made doubly poignant by the presence of Senegal-born Patrick Vieira at the heart of Les Bleus midfield. It sent shockwaves not only through the football world but the entire region, and all of Africa, as well.
“Some teams didn’t respect us. They thought we were nobodies, and they didn’t want to play against us or show us any respect,” said Khalilou Fadiga, who went on to play for Inter Milan and now turns out for Belgian club Antwerp. President Abdoulaye Wade declared a national holiday after the win sparked an eruption of joy and chaos in the streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
It seemed that Senegalese wizards like El Hadji Diouf Salif Diao and Khalilou Fadiga had emerged from the dust to become household names. However, these budding stars were standing on the shoulders of a Sahelian giant.
One man who could not contain his emotions on that fateful day of 31 May 2002 was Salif Keita, currently President of Mali’s football association. “The pride we felt in this part of Africa on that day was enormous,” said Keita, revered in Mali and the Sahel in the same way as Roger Milla in Cameroon. “For an African team to beat France, the reigning world and European champions, was such a special thing.”
The son of a truck driver, Keita made his playing debut at 16 for capital club Real Bamako, the same year he took his bow for the Mali national team. Amassing 14 goals in eight games for his club in 1966, the man known as “Domingo” and “the Bamako gazelle” quickly got noticed on the continent and beyond.
“The Malian government put a lot of money and effort into sport back then,” Keita explained. “It was a matter of national pride and as a result, unlike other countries in the region, it was impossible for Mali’s best players to go unnoticed.”
The jet-heeled striker was soon picked out by legendary French outfit Saint-Etienne, and he joined the club in 1967. In what was an inauspicious beginning to his European journey, no one was there to meet Keita when he arrived at the airport in Paris, and he was forced to take a taxi to the club’s home base over 500 kilometres south of the capital. Saint-Etienne paid the fare when he finally arrived, and Keita repaid them with goals in his first two matches.
The move from Africa to the riches of European club football is of course a common one these days, but Keita’s experience was a difficult ordeal, complete with small-minded taunting. “It was difficult to adapt, but I had to,” said the man who helped the club to four consecutive French titles and Mali to a Nations Cup final in 1972.
After five years with Saint-Etienne, Keita, who was named the first African Footballer of the Year in 1970, went on to play for Marseilles, Valencia in Spain and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal.
With his playing days over, he was elected President of the Malian FA (in 2005) and currently runs one of the most respected football academies in West Africa. Amid a sea of money-hungry unlicensed football schools, the Salif Keita Centre is a beacon of light in Bamako, producing current stars of world football such as Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, a nephew of Salif s, and Real Madrid’s foraging midfielder Mahamadou Diarra.
While Mali has a relatively rich history to draw upon, and a new golden generation emerging for Les Aigles (The Eagles), neighbours Burkina Faso and Gambia — the smallest country on the African mainland – are starting out almost from scratch with a focus on developing young talent.
Both nations have made recent appearances in FIFA youth competitions, with Burkina Faso sending a side to the knockout stages of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2003. The Gambians went to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru, where they beat a Marcelo-led Brazil, and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last year, where they reached the second round.
“Gambia are putting great effort into scouring the countryside and finding new talent.” said renowned youth coach Peter Bonu Johnson. who held the reins of the senior team briefly this vear. “A lot of the boys from those youth teams are now pushing their way into the senior side. This is the right kind of development.”
Ousmane Jallow (Al Am, UAE) and Abdoulie Mansally and Sainey Nyassi (both with New England Revolution, USA), have all made the jump to the senior team, with a good number more in Austria, Denmark and Norway. In Burkina Faso, recent youth standouts like Saidou Panandetiguiri of Belgium’s Lokeren, Egypt-based goalkeeper Daouda Diakite and French side Grenoble’s Amadou Coulibaly are making a mark. Similar projects are also taking hold, albeit slowly, in Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Sudan.
While West Africa’s Sahelian representatives have experienced encouraging progress, the farther east you travel on the arid belt, the more problems emerge. Chad, who have never qualified for a continental final competition, were suspended by FIFA in late March of this year for government interference in their FA, but have since had the suspension lifted after steps were taken to remedy the irregularities. Just a few months later, increasing tensions on Chad’s eastern border forced FIFA to suspend their 2010 FIFA World Cup™’ qualifier against 1970 African champions and founding members of CAF, Sudan, who have their own set of problems at present.
“We, and all countries in the Sahel region, need to become more consistent in order to become regular powers in Africa, and beyond,” explains Abdel Moneim Hussein, knowing full well that the- world’s focus on his country revolves around the ever-deepening crisis in Darfur and the escalating conflict with Chad.
“I believe that in the Sahelian countries there need to be more clearly defined national football infrastructures,” echoes Malian Mohamed Magassouba, who led the Congo DR national team for years and is considered one of Mali’s top coaches, having been short-listed for the national team job before the FA decided on Stephen Keshi. He currently coaches Stade Malien, who have won the first division three years on the trot.
Keita also agrees: “We’re still some way behind the countries from North Africa. Our professionalism needs improvement and we need to become stronger from year to year.”
Despite a dizzying array of problems and obstacles, the Sahel can be proud of its achievements in football. This year Mali claimed its first African Footballer of the Year since Keita in Sevilla’s Frederick Kanoute, who helped the Eagles reach the last Cup of Nations and finished third-top scorer in Spain’s La Liga in 2006/2007.
With the next FIFA World Cup™ being hosted on the continent, in South Africa in 2010, and a record six African participants taking part, even more Sahelian nations are dreaming of replicating Senegal’s 2002 success. Will it be the traditional nearly-men from Mali or Gambia, or maybe even the “Honest Men” of Burkina Faso, who recently beat Tunisia and have a stranglehold on their first qualifying group?
But, do not count out the region’s standard-bearers, Senegal. Even after a disappointing 2-2 draw in qualifying with Liberia in mid-June that typifies their struggles, controversial striker El Hadji Diouf had this to say for their chances moving forward: “I don’t agree with those who think that our recent problems will stop progress to the World Cup and us making an impact in 2010.”