For some, a road without any obstacles can be just as tricky to travel on as one that is punctured with potholes. Some like Senegal.
Without record-breaking continental giants Egypt, heavyweights Cameroon and Nigeria in the ongoing African Nations Cup (ANC), the path was considered clear for the likes of them, Ghana or Ivory Coast to emerge champions. But, Senegal will not get anywhere near the trophy after finishing Group A in last place. They limped out of the tournament without a single victory, despite being FIFA ranked the highest of the four teams in their pool, 20 places above the nearest challenger, Libya.
When considered in context, their failure is nothing new. The Teranga Lions have never been the best on the continent and are noted for squandering chances to achieve that. What is new is the depths they have plunged in exiting the competition. The inability to perform as a unit, possible distractions from club commitments overseas and most worryingly, the absence of the hunger that is often associated with countries at a continental showpiece is what will emerge as Senegal's most concerning issues in the aftermath of another ANC exit.
"The Senegal team has no soul," El Hadji-Diouf, former national player and two-time African footballer of the year, told Orange Sport. His agenda was unmasked as he went on to attack ex-team-mate and current national coach Amara Traore. "I have always said that Amara Traore knows nothing. He doesn't have the level of experience and knowledge to handle the team."
Diouf, who currently plays for Doncaster Rovers, is unashamedly of the opinion that Senegal's football federation would be better off if it turned to some of the other stars of Senegal's 2002 success, such as himself. Diouf, as well as Traore, were part of the squad that reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. That squad also ended runners-up at the ANC but Senegal have failed to match or better those feats since.
"The FA people are jealous of Senegal's 2002 generation. They don't want us to associate with the team," Diouf said. "Some of us have experience. I'm completing my coaching course in England and I could be useful to the team but they have mixed politics with football in Senegal and things will never change." Diouf has been banned for five years by his country's football federation after accusing officials of corruption last year.
Diouf's comments are solely driven by self-interest but he makes pertinent points about the sometimes dysfunctional operations of the country's football. The last four years have been particularly topsy-turvy as Senegal tried everything to replicate their glory days. In 2008, their Polish coach Henri Kasperczak resigned midway through the ANC campaign after Senegal lost their chance at qualifying for the quarter-finals. Lamine N'diaye, who is currently in charge of TP Mazambe, took over.
In his first three months he was unable to travel anywhere while the federation had to regroup following a dramatic implosion. More than 30 members of the federation resigned, leaving those who were left to grope in the dark. N'diaye's rough beginnings, in which he won twice in eight matches, became problems of exponential proportions when Senegal failed to qualify for the 2010 continental cup and bowed out of contention for the World Cup.
He also got the boot, opening the door for Traore's reign. Under him, Senegal incorporated younger players to develop a good blend, climbed the rankings and beat Cameroon on their way to the 2012 event, earning the tag as one of its favourites. Now, all Traore can do is plead for a second chance and argue that dismantling the structures and starting again would only result in more setbacks.
The coach is asking for time to build, something that Senegal have not afforded their football in the recent past. They need only look to their fellow favourites, who are still in the competition, to see the value in his request. While only Senegal's captain, Mamadou Niang and vice-captain, Omar Daf, have played more than 50 internationals, Ghana's squad has five players who have represented their country more than 50 times and Ivory Coast has nine.
"My team cannot be compared to Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana in terms of experience," Traore lamented. "It is a young team that showed character. "Senior members of the team agree. "The current squad is young, talented and very willing," Daf said. "We all need to keep calm and first see what went wrong before drawing drastic conclusions."
One of Senegal's worries is the inability to score as many goals as they seem capable of. Despite creating numerous chances, they found the back of the net just three times. With strikers Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse in their XI, they were expected to do so on many more occasions. The pair, who both play at Newcastle United, did not manage a single goal between them despite glowing club records, lending weight to the one-foot-on-the-plane argument that has long hovered over ANC.
Only two members of Senegal's ANC squad, both goalkeepers, actually play their football in the country of their birth. Nine others ply their trade in France, five in England, three in Turkey, one in Spain, one in Denmark and one in Qatar. All of them have ongoing leagues to play in and some will reportedly turn out for their clubs as early as later this week now that the Senegal's run at ANC is over.
The tournament need not worry about this affecting it in the future as it will be moved to June from next year but the commitment of the Senegalese squad will be questioned as their attempts to do the nation proud seemed half-hearted. In a group that consisted of a host nation hoping to defy the odds, a country who were still high on the fumes of revolution and another who sniff a genuine chance to lift the trophy, Senegal needed more than just heart to compete and win. Like Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Zambia, they lacked what Diouf accurately described in his tirade. Senegal just did not have enough soul.