Cheikhou Kouyaté’s Senegal are hot favourites to win the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.
In 2019, after reaching that year’s final and losing to Algeria, the Palace midfielder sat down with the matchday programme to reflect on the experience. As the Lions of Teranga kick off their next AFCON campaign, we’ve run the conversation again below.
If pride could be personified it would look something like Cheikhou Kouyaté talking about Senegal’s achievements in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Despite ultimately losing 1-0 to Algeria in the final, Kouyaté can’t help but smile at what the side he captained did for his homeland.
He begins: “My summer was so busy at the Africa Cup of Nations; it was special for me, my teammates and all Senegalese people.
“We were unlucky in the final. We deserved more but we did everything we could to win this for the Senegalese people.
“We thank God for helping us make it there and you never know, maybe next time. But overall it was a great experience.
“The celebration of reaching the final helped the country all focus on one goal, just one team; everybody was in peace.”
Despite the huge success in reaching the competition’s showpiece at the Cairo International Stadium, Kouyaté’s role as captain meant the burden of dealing with the consequences of a high-profile and crushing defeat in a final were twofold.
Not only are you looking to comfort yourself, but you’re also the one your teammates – experienced and debutants alike – look to. How do you strike the balance of not wanting your teammates’ disappointment to spiral with your own sadness?
Kouyaté explains it: “It’s very, very hard because you’re the captain but you want to cry but at the same time you don’t want to cry in front of your teammates, especially the younger ones as you need to show them how to deal with the setback.
“You get them focusing on going further the next time at the Africa Cup of Nations; I say to them: ‘Don’t cry. You’re an unbelievable player, stay strong.’ But it is very hard for me because I want to cry but this is football and you must forget this one and look to the future.”
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Although the situation didn’t arise in Egypt, Kouyaté says there’s a good back and forth between himself and his fellow African internationals and the countries they represent in Ghana’s Jordan Ayew and Jeffrey Schlupp, and Ivory Coast’s Wilfried Zaha:
“It’s always good to see them but when you play against your teammates you want to win for your country. However, away from the game we have a good relationship about it all. Jordan will say: ‘Hey, the Ghana national team is the best,’ and I will say: ‘No, no it’s all about Senegal.’ Then when Bakary [Sako] was here he’d be all about Mali.
“It’s nice to have that, though. We enjoy the competition.”
And just then, as if planned, up pops an interview when Jeffrey Schlupp on the Training Ground canteen’s screens.
Kouyaté explodes: “Oh, Jeff! Look, it’s Jeff!”