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Senegal's Cup of Nations triumph sees potential fulfilled at last

Senegal supporters at the Olembe Stadium celebrate their team's victory

Sadio Mane with his hands on the trophy after he scored the decisive penalty in Senegal's shoot-out win over Egypt Creator: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

After years of underachievement, Sadio Mane's Senegal finally lived up to their billing as Africa's outstanding team with victory in the Cup of Nations, even if they did it the hard way in the final against Egypt.  

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Mane could have been the fall guy in his showdown with Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah after his seventh-minute penalty was saved at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde.

However, after a turgid final finished 0-0 in extra time, he redeemed himself by converting the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out which the Lions of Teranga won 4-2 before Egypt captain Salah had the chance to take his team's last shot.

"You know what made the difference when I missed the first penalty? All my teammates came up to me and said 'Who cares, we are a team, we win together and we lose together'," Mane said.

He and his fellow Senegalese players had just burst into coach Aliou Cisse's press conference, singing and dancing as they celebrated finally ending decades of disappointment.

Africa's top-ranked national team and 20th in the world, Senegal lost the last Cup of Nations final in 2019, falling 1-0 to Algeria in Cairo, never recovering from a second-minute goal.

They also lost the 2002 final on penalties to Samuel Eto'o and Cameroon, a few months before becoming one of just three African teams to reach a World Cup quarter-final.

Cisse was captain then and coach in 2019. It is third time lucky for him, while Mane was one of four survivors from the last final to start against Egypt.

"It's the best day of my life, I think it's the most important trophy of my life," Mane said.

"I'm living a dream. I can't believe it. The wait was long but finally we did it.We are all happy and proud to win this trophy."

Senegal gained independence in 1960 but rarely qualified for the Cup of Nations over the next three decades and only emerged as a force with the 2002 side featuring Cisse and one-time Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf.

"The Senegalese people have suffered a lot but I dedicate this trophy to Aliou Cisse. You can't begin to understand what he has brought to Senegalese football. He deserves everything," said Mane.

Mane, the 29-year-old former African footballer of the year, draws most of the attention but Senegal's strength in depth is unique on the continent.

Their team in Sunday's final also contained nine starters based in Europe's big five leagues, including skipper Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli, right-back Bouna Sarr of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain duo Abdou Diallo and Idrissa Gana Gueye.

For Chelsea's Edouard Mendy, the victory caps a remarkable nine months in which he also won the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Best goalkeeper of the year award.

One of several members of Cisse's squad born in France, Mendy is eligible to play for Senegal through his mother and featured at the 2019 AFCON only to lose his place because of injury.

The giant 29-year-old missed the beginning of his team's adventure in Cameroon due to Covid-19 before reclaiming the gloves. His save from Egypt's Mohanad Lasheen in Sunday's shoot-out paved the way for Mane to win the title.

"We have been chasing this trophy for years and years," he said.

"We have a mixture of young players and more experienced ones. We had a difficult start to the tournament when a lot of things went against us but we always had faith and got our reward."

The celebrations will go on and on in Dakar and around Senegal, but Cisse's players will quickly return to their clubs before regrouping at the end of March for a rematch with the Egyptians.

This time it will be a decisive two-legged play-off for a spot at the World Cup in Qatar later this year, as Senegal look to the double over Salah's side.

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