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Benin's Soccer Fans Are Proud, But Ask For More

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Until recently, the Squirrels – as Benin's national squad is known – were the minnows on the African football scene. However, recent successes on the field and a jump up the FIFA world rankings have raised expectations amongst fans. So much so that their coach, Rene Taelman, was replaced recently after a 3-0 defeat to Sudan.
Recently in Benin tens of thousands of football enthusiasts have been flocking to the Friendship Stadium in Cotonou every time Benin play a foreign team. They go to show their support for their national squad. This is in contrast to the recent past, when the country's stadiums remained desperately empty because no one seemed to be interested in watching a football team that was synonymous with shame and defeat.
But now things are changing for the better. Last September they thrashed the Taifa Stars of Tanzania by 4 goals to nil in the 2004 African Nations Cup qualifiers. This was followed by wins over Burkina Faso and Niger, who recently participated in a four nation football tournament in Cotonou, along with Nigeria and Benin.
Most of the football fans these days are teenagers and young adults who accept nothing less than victory. Football is no longer a mere sport here, it has become a matter of national pride, and the Beninois want their country to be known in Africa.
The level of enthusiasm and expectation is evident. Artists have even banded together and prepared an album, 'Go Ahead, Squirrels', to encourage their national side. It is said to be selling well. Even the political authorities, recognising the change in mood, are showing a keener interest. During the Tanzania-Benin encounter last year, at least four government ministers turned up. They received a standing ovation from the overexcited crowd who definitely approved of the political support from highly-placed officials.
Gilles Adoukonou, an accounts assistant based in Cotonou and a staunch supporter of the Squirrels, believes that football seems to be one of the few sports that definitely bring the Beninois together. "In everyday life", Gilles says, "the Beninois usually mistrust one another. But when it comes to soccer, they all agree that national pride comes first."
This new belief in their team brings expectation of it and a demand that they should qualify for the 2004 African Cup of Nations. "Soccer fans here are determined to see their national team qualify for 2004", Gilles stresses. "Now that our FIFA ranking has improved, the least we can expect from our boys is to stay on track".
However, the heavy defeat (3-0) inflicted on the Squirrels in Khartoum by the Eagles of Sudan has dampened spirits, and the national coach Rene Taelman has become a victim of the fans' raised expectations.
Moucharaf Anjorin, the First Vice-Chairman of Benin's Football Federation, admits that Benin's Football Association had made terrible mistakes before the Sudan-Benin encounter. "We actually thought we were going to play the 'Crocodiles of the Nile', whereas their true name is the 'Eagles of the Desert'", he confessed. "Besides, we did not have a single idea about their strengths and weaknesses – no video cassettes on their previous matches, no thorough knowledge of their key players."
The Squirrels went to Sudan so sure of themselves that they came back terribly humiliated. And some soccer fans started pointing accusing fingers at Rene Taelman, the Belgian coach.
Now Benin's Football Federation have appointed a new coach, Cecil Jones, to guide the team through their next encounters against Sudan, Zambia and Tanzania, and thus qualify for the 2004 finals. The pressure and expectation on the new coach is huge. He may see Benin's recent jump in the FIFA world rankings as a burden rather than a benefit.



Karim Okanla, April 2003

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