Senegal walking in the footsteps of giants at Africa Cup of Nations

YAOUNDE, Cameroon -- No team knows what it means to be Africa Cup of Nations nearly men quite like Senegal, the only side to have reached two finals without getting their hands on the trophy.

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've 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, 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.

"We made our population proud, but ultimately, in 2002, we didn't win," Cisse told ESPN.

"This doesn't mean we delete all of the happiness we gave to our people; success isn't just about winning, but about leaving a consequence or a heritage for others to follow.

"We hope for that star, we've been working for it for years, and we're close -- we've never been so close -- but Burkina Faso are a big obstacle to pass

"We hope we can get that star here in Cameroon."

- Africa Cup of Nations bracket and fixtures schedule
- Africa Cup of Nations: Everything you need to know
- AFCON kit rankings: Who has the best jersey?
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

Few African generations have done as much to fuel the football fervour in their country as the Senegal side of the start of the century, with the likes of El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Kalilou Fadiga putting the West African nation firmly on the map.

"I've never heard of it," Paul Gascoigne said in the ITV Studio when asked about Senegal's prospects at the 2002 World Cup.

"It's in Africa, Paul. Always has been," came presenter Des Lynam's caustic reply, yet Gazza's ignorance was perhaps unsurprising when asked to assess a nation that had made little previous impact in the world of football.

Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly have spoken fondly of the warmth with which they remember the Golden Generation, and Cisse is proud of the trace his old side have left on the current crop.

"A lot of the boys here followed us, some have even told me they ran after our bus in 2002, and now I'm lucky enough to manage them," Cisse said.

"We even have some members of the '02 squad who are in my staff too, and it's moving.

"We provided reference points, and now the current squad want to follow those role models."

One member of the 2002 generation has stood out more than others during this Nations Cup, the first since the premature death of ex-Fulham and Portsmouth midfielder Papa Bouba Diop from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Motor neurone disease) at the age of 42 in November 2020.

The memory of the man known as "The Wardrobe" lives brightly among the current squad, with Bamba Dieng celebrating his first international goal -- in the 2-0 victory over Cape Verde in the Round of 16 -- by emulating Bouba Diop's iconic dance after he scored the '02 World Cup opener against France.

"I was surprised, because they didn't tell me [they were planning it]," Cisse said.

"It was moving, but that's what African football is: the joy of living, being happy, making others happy.

"It's all part of the spectacle, as was the dance -- the dance for Bouba Diop. He has left us, but these boys did this dance to pay their homage to him and to the 2002 generation.

"I have had the privilege to be among the people who wrote the history of football in our country, as did some of those who aren't here anymore; our thoughts are with all those who have contributed."

Cisse is proud of the work he's done since taking the reins of the national side in the months after their quarterfinal exit at the Nations Cup in 2015, but he's critically aware that anything less than a maiden title will leave the country's footballing story -- and his own Teranga Lions mission -- unfulfilled.

"The work is only crowned when this new generation win and secure what we've desired since 1960 [Senegalese independence]," he said.

"The great generation came and didn't win it, but we have faith and now we'll battle to win it."

Senegal will face Egypt in the AFCON final on Sunday Feb. 6 in Yaounde, at the Stade d'Olembe.