Friends collide as Cisse and Belmadi target AFCON crown

Djamel Belmadi (Gallo Images)
Djamel Belmadi (Gallo Images)

Cairo - They were born a day apart, raised in the same city and enjoyed prosperous playing careers, and while both Aliou Cisse and Djamel Belmadi are now experiencing similar success as coaches, only one can lift the Africa Cup of Nations in Cairo on Friday.

Cisse was born March 24, 1976 in Senegal, with his Algerian counterpart arriving in the world the following day, in Champigny-sur-Marne. It was in this Parisian suburb, where Cisse moved to at the age of nine, that the pair's destiny would be shaped.

"He's an old acquaintance. I say that with great fondness," said Belmadi, who broke through into the professional ranks at Paris Saint-Germain while Cisse started out with Lille. Despite never playing on the same team, they graced the same pitches in France for nearly a decade.

The duo made close to 180 Ligue 1 appearances between them across spells at six different clubs, but it's in Africa where their legacy has assumed a greater dimension.

Cisse, captain of the Senegal team beaten in the 2002 Cup of Nations final, got the better of Belmadi's Algeria in qualifying for that year's World Cup, but the latter gained revenge in the dugout here, claiming a 1-0 victory in the group stage, setting up Friday's decider.

The occasion will pit local coaches against each other in a Cup of Nations final for the first time in 21 years since Egypt, under the tutelage of Mahmoud El Gohary, defeated Jomo Sono's South Africa 2-0 in Ouagadougou.

"It's much more complicated when you're local than when you're an expat. It's up to us (Africans) to have confidence in ourselves, in our boys, in our coaches. Bit by bit the order is changing," said Cisse.

'Great message' for Africa

"To play this final against my friend, it's amazing. I think it's a great message we're sending to football officials in Africa," added Belmadi.

Cisse has carefully constructed his Senegal team since taking over in 2015, making steady progress that included an appearance at the 2018 World Cup following a 16-year absence, and reaching just the country's second Cup of Nations final. 

As for Belmadi, appointed last year, he inherited a side in turmoil, undermined by a revolving-door policy that saw five coaches come and go in just two years.

They may be on the same path now, possibly 90 minutes from a continental crown, but the routes taken to this point vary considerably. 

Spurred on by a desire to atone for the agony of the 2002 final defeat, Cisse's only managerial experience has come at the helm of Senegal. Belmadi, on the other hand, spent eight years in Qatar, including a stint with the national team in 2014-15, before landing with the Desert Foxes.

"Cisse is the same as a coach as he was in his playing career. He's someone very disciplined. Despite his lack of coaching experience, he's quickly got results and has consistency in his work, which is also down to his brilliant career," said Belmadi.

"Djamel is a great tactician, a very good coach. He's able to get his team to play like he wants them to play," Cisse replied.

While Algeria have impressed with their style of play in Egypt and Senegal have looked more robust in defence, only one country will achieve its goal on Friday.

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