Ex-Senegal midfielder, Khalilou Fadiga, insists nothing comes close to playing at the Africa Cup of Nations. Fadiga, 42, a member of the Technical Study Group and a CAF Ambassador for the 31st Total Africa Cup of Nations Gabon 2017, talks exclusively to CAFOnline.com about what participation in the biggest African football spectacle meant to his career among others. Below are the excerpts.
CAFOnline.com: How many Africa Cup of Nations did you participate in?
Khalilou Fadiga: I played in two, in 2000 (Ghana/Nigeria) and 2002 (Mali). Then I had my heart problems which kept me out for a year, and so I missed out on the 2004 edition in Tunisia. They were really two good ones. My first AFCON, I reached the quarters and the semis the second time. I really enjoyed both.
What memories do you have of those two tournaments?
The atmosphere in the stadium was so nice. It was a big tournament, and it was the first time I participated in a tournament of that nature on the continent. Great fans and you get the opportunity to meet great players too. My first experience was in 2000 [co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria]. Initially, we were based in Kano, and we moved to Lagos for the knockout stages where I met Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu among others. The second was in 2002 [In Mali], where it was perfect till the end, losing to Cameroon led by Rigobert Song (speedy recovery to him) in the final on penalties. What I always remember about the Africa Cup of Nations is the atmosphere and shared feelings by everyone.
In recent times, infrastructure has improved plus a huge media following. The AFCON is the talk of the world whenever and wherever it is played.
Which game is the most memorable?
It was the victory over Nigeria (2-1 after extra time) at the semi-finals of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations in Mali. Midway into the first half, we were a man down when Pape Sarr was sent off. At that time Nigeria were highly rated and we beat them to reach the final.
The other game I have fond memories of is the quarter-final clash again against Nigeria in 2000 in Lagos. It was my first AFCON quarter final and I scored after seven minutes. With five minutes remaining, I saw most of the fans leaving the stadium, and I thought we had almost qualified as we were leading 1-0. Then Julius Aghahowa pops up and scored two wonderful goals to cut short our dreams.
What of your teammates?
The Senegalese team of 2002 was a really good team. Usually, when people talk of Senegal, they always talk about the 2002 generation, but it all started in 2000. When were in Lagos (AFCON 2000), there were about five players who playing outside of Senegal, the rest were locals. The team of 2002 really started in 2000 and it is important to remember those who started the journey. I’m grateful to God that in my life with the national team, I met lovely teammates and great people.
You missed out on the title in 2002 losing to Cameroon on penalties in the final. Any regrets?
The highest point of my career was reaching the final of the AFCON in 2002 in Mali. I was disappointed we lost on penalties (2-3); Aliou Cisse, Amdy Faye and El Hadji Diouf missed their kicks, whilst I scored together with Ferdinand Coly. It was a very painful moment. We knew that could beat Cameroon. Cameroon are like the Germans. There are always two teams on the pitch, but in the end it is always Cameroon that wins.
The same generation made headlines at the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Japan & Korea Republic?
I’m very happy to be part of the generation, not only as part of it but also as one of the key actors. At the 2002 FIFA World Cup, I scored a goal (against Uruguay), made several assists and at the end myself, (El Hadji) Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop were named amongst the best players of the tournament. It was a great moment for us (Senegal) and Africa. The difference between Africa and other continents is that when an African team is playing, everyone rallies behind that team. We did it for Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria, Tunisia among others. Of course, we were disappointed we failed in becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. With teams like Senegal, Ghana, Egypt, Algeria, it is my hope that an African team will reach the semis in the not too distant future.
What is your take on the current Senegal squad?
The current Senegal team is blessed with quality players with a lot potential. However, you cannot compare football of 2002 and now. During our time, Egypt was at the top, and we beat them. We also beat other teams such as Algeria and Morocco. Also, we had players who were playing at the highest level, but media coverage was not that much at the time. In addition, most of the players were based in France at the time, but now majority play in England. At the time, it was all about the French Ligue 1 and Italian Serie A because the English Premier League did not have many African players like now. I think our generation was technically better coupled with our style of play. Nowadays, most commentators and fans in Senegal always moan about the absence of a playmaker in the current team. We have a lot of quality and the coaches Aliou Cisse, Lamine Diatta and Omar Daf with the support of the president of the Senegalese Football Federation, Augustin Senghor are doing a great job and the players are heavily involved. They have a lot of quality but they know that there is much to learn from us.
Senegal failed to go past the group stage in 2015 despite the favourites tag around their neck. What has been the missing element?
I believe it was due to some technical problems. There were coaches who left in the middle of the campaign, something that Aliou Cisse (current coach) will never do because he is more Senegalese than you can imagine. He is so proud to have played in the final of AFCON, and aspires to be a coach who will also guide a team through to the final. He has the technical quality and has the experience. Also, we have to commend the federation under the leadership of Augustin Senghor who decided to give chance to former players such as Cisse, (Omar) Daf, Tony Sylva, (Lamine) Diatta, and myself, in the Sponsorship Sub Committee. For us (former players), it is a huge honour to be part of the Senegal national team and of the federation. It is our way of giving back because most of us owe our careers to the national team.
Favourites to win the AFCON 2017
I hope and have the feeling it will be a great tournament. I hope the best team wins. If happens to be Senegal, it will be fantastic. We (Senegal) have great players, good coach, great fans and the whole country is looking forward to that moment. Our last two AFCONS were a disaster. Now, the Senegalese players who are doing well in Italy, France, England and Spain have to prove that they not coming to Gabon to have a good time, but can win the trophy. There is also Algeria, Cameroon is always there and Gabon who are playing at home.