Last week, the internationals having opened up a little time, I sorted through some old photographs. I came upon a stack from the African Cup of Nations in 2002, in the days when I still fancied myself as somebody who could take a picture, and lugged an SLR camera with me wherever I went.
There were shots of the mobilettes that lined the streets outside the main stadium in Bamako, of Taribo West singing at George Weah’s retirement party and, poignantly, of Bruno Metsu, looking fresh and eager in the garden behind the Senegal team hotel.
Metsu was always willing to talk – I think, in fact, that at the back of a cupboard I still have an interview with him that I never got around to transcribing. He recognised that as Senegal coach his job wasn’t just about getting results on the pitch but also about promoting the country and its players, persuading them that they were able to compete with the best and persuading the best clubs that they were worth signing.
I have one of the photos in front of me as I write this.
If my memory is correct, it comes from an interview the day before Senegal began the tournament against Egypt in the strange three-sided Modibo Keita stadium, where hundreds of fans would mass on the rock face that stood behind the goal at one end.
Metsu would have been a couple of weeks short of his 48th birthday, but he looks a decade younger, the only lines on his face a pair of concentration ridges above his nose.
He is caught glancing up to his left, left hand raised with thumb and little finger extended in the act of making an old-fashioned telephone gesture. A gold chain glints beneath his navy polo shirt and the sun has bleached highlights into his mass of dark brown curls.
His eyes, a greyish blue, are startlingly pale, seeming to radiate a benign intensity.
Other Europeans working in West Africa quickly looked frazzled, their discomfort with the climatic conditions reflecting their general unsuitability for the challenges of working in the environment – Berti Vogts’s sweatily ill-starred stint in charge of Nigeria stands as an obvious example – but Metsu was clearly thriving.
To say he was an unknown when he’d taken over Senegal would be an exaggeration, but there had been little in his decade coaching in France, or his brief time with Guinea, to suggest the explosion that was about to happen.
Metsu found in Senegal his perfect job, a team and a country that suited his temperament and his method, the depth of the affinity demonstrated when he married a local woman and converted to Islam.
That was, of course, a very fine squad. Whatever problems El-Hadji Diouf later had, he was also an extremely talented forward. Salif Diao and Papa Bouba Diop offered muscle and a dash of class in midfield. Aliou Cisse and Ferdinand Coly were commanding at the back. Khalilou Fadiga, inconsistent as he was, offered composure and imagination. The raw materials were there, but it was under Metsu that Senegal became a competitive side.
He didn’t seem to mind the players relaxing, trusting them to keep themselves in shape. I remember – vaguely – a late night with some other journalists between the group stage and the quarter-final. At one point as I went to buy some drinks, I was stopped at the bar by a couple with French accents. The man asked if they could join us as they wanted to practise their English.
I assumed he was a local and we sat together until the early hours when he finally stood up and said he had to be off.
“I’ve got training in five hours,” he said with a grimace. Only then did we realise – footballers often being difficult to place out of context – that it was Fadiga.
It was probably Metsu’s relationship with Diouf that was key. There must have been times when the forward, then an emerging star at Lens, infuriated him but Metsu by and large gave him freedom, accepting he was a figure who would react badly to stringent rules.
If there was leeway off the pitch, though, on it Senegal were extremely well-drilled.
They didn’t concede a goal in the group stage – that wasn’t so unusual, given that the deplorable condition of the pitches in Mali reduced the average goals per game to just 1.5 – but it was significant that the two goals they scored both came in the last 10 minutes of games.
Whatever else they got up to, Metsu’s squad was fit: they outlasted opponents. There was another late goal as they beat DR Congo 2-0 in the quarter-final and Diao then struck in extra-time to beat Nigeria 2-1 in an epic semi.
Cameroon, another brusquely physical side, beat them on penalties in the final after two hours of stalemate, but greater glories were to come six months later as Senegal beat the world champions France in the opening game of the World Cup and went on to reach the quarter-final.
Probably wisely, Metsu quit then to move back into club football – sparing himself the uneasy comedown suffered by Herve Renard with Zambia after their Nations Cup triumph in 2012, but his two years with Senegal remained his masterwork.
You always wondered whether Metsu could repeat the trick elsewhere – and he did, of course, lead UAE to their first Gulf Cup success in 2007 – but it was never quite the same again.
When the awful news emerged last year that he had stomach cancer, you knew it never would be.
And now he has gone, far too soon, leaving just the photos, the old tapes and the memories of one of the great African teams.
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