Sunday 29 August 2021, 17:17

Duarte: Senegal the favourites but anything can happen

  • Togo qualified for World Cup debut at Germany 2006 at Senegal’s expense

  • Fifteen years on, the two sides meet again in the qualifiers for Qatar 2022

  • Togo kick off against the Senegalese and Namibia

Togo’s one and only FIFA World Cup™ appearance to date came at Germany 2006. Drawn in the same qualifying group as Senegal, the Togolese won 3-1 in Lome and secured a 2-2 draw in Dakar, results that were vital to them finishing top of the section with 23 points, two ahead of the Senegalese. That outcome was a surprise to most people, not least because the Lions of Teranga had been so impressive in reaching the quarter-finals at Korea/Japan 2002.

Fast forward to 2021 and the two teams have been drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group and find themselves in a similar situation to 15 years ago, with Senegal in much the better form, having reached the last world finals (Russia 2018) and finished runners-up at the 2019 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. asked Togo’s Portuguese coach, Paulo Duarte, about the similarities between then and now. “What happened in 2006 could be positive for us, especially in terms of the mindset of the players,” he replied. “The reality on the pitch is different, though. Togo are in a transitional phase, with a lot of key players having retired in the last four years. We’ve gone from being a team that was feared throughout Africa and reached 36 in the world ranking to one that now lies 133rd.

“Taking Togo back to the top won’t be easy,” he added. “It’s going to take time and hard work. Senegal are twice as strong as us at the moment, and we’re not as strong as the Togo side that took on Senegal in 2006 and qualified. That’s the truth of it.”

Players of Togo pose

Tough assignment

Aside from Senegal, Togo have been drawn with Congo and Namibia in Group H in the second round of the African qualifying competition. “It’s a tight group, with Senegal starting out with a slight advantage,” said Duarte. “They’re the favourites and the best team in Africa right now. They’ve got a lot of quality players. On paper, they’re the team to beat in the group, though anything can happen in football.”

Togo kick off their campaign against the Senegalese in Dakar before entertaining Namibia. Discussing the rebuilding task he faces, Duarte said: “We have a young squad that lacks international experience. We need at least two years of work to get to where Togo were at before. We’ve got a lot of tactical work ahead of us. We need to improve a few things and look at the psychology too.”

Coach Paulo Duarte

An experienced campaigner

Duarte is one of African football’s most successful coaches and achieved big things in his stint with Burkina Faso, taking them to the semi-finals of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

“We were knocked out on penalties. It was very tough,” recalled the Portuguese.

Discussing his expertise, he said: “My experience and knowledge of the African game and the tactical demands I make of my players are my calling cards as a coach.”

When asked about Togo’s dream of qualifying for the world finals for a second time, Duarte was unequivocal: “To be honest, our main objective is to qualify for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations because Togo missed out on the last two (2019 and 2021). We’ll see what happens after that. We know there will be a lot of pitfalls along the way. We won’t have any pressure on us in the qualifiers, but we’ll be doing all we can to get some good results.

“I’m a realistic coach. We’ll be giving it all we can in every game we play, but we need to keep our feet on the ground.”