With the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations set to get underway, Benin are gearing up for Wednesday's match against Senegal. Benin have come a long way since the AFCON debacle of 2010.
After their penalty shootout triumph over much-fancied Morocco, Benin's Cebio Soukou and his teammates sat in the dressing room and listened to the president sing their praises. The country's head of state, Patrice Talon, congratulated "his boys" personally via phone.
The president told Benin's victorious footballers that they were now the pride of the nation and should consider themselves heroes. He then promised that they would get their just rewards when they returned home after the tournament, before leaving the players to celebrate their the first big upset of the round of 16.
"We celebrated, sang and danced in the bus and later in the hotel. And all this without a drop of alcohol," Cebio Soukou said afterwards.
For Benin, advancing to the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations is a big deal. The small West African country had never before reached the knockout stages of the tournament and their last appearance, in Angola in 2010, was a debacle. Then-head coach Michel Dussuyer's men managed only a single draw to go along with two defeats in the group stage and the Benin Football Federation (BFF) responded by disbanding the national team shortly after they returned home due to the players' "lack of patriotism and bad behavior."
Coach's one last chance
Benin's football had hit rock bottom, and left without a national team to train, Dussuyer and his coaching staff were let go as well. The Frenchman then moved on to coach first Guinea then Ivory Coast, a job he held until resigning after having failed to guide the team to the quarterfinals of the last Africa Cup of Nations in 2017.
However, once again he landed on his feet, as the BFF brought him in for a second spell as coach of Benin's national team in what could be seen as something of a last chance – one that the 60-year-old Dussuyer has seized with both hands.
"He is a real expert and has always got tactics right for each of our opponents," Cebio Soukou said.
Soukou, who grew up in the western German city of Bochum, spent last season with Hansa Rostock of the third division and is to move up to second-divison outfit Arminia Bielefeld for the upcoming campaign.
Against Morocco, Soukou played in an attacking role with the veteran striker Mikael Pote, who is eight years his senior. Pote, who plays his club football with Adana Demispor of the Turkish second division, is one of the two "survivors" of the 2010 AFCON debacle, along with Stephane Sessegnon, 35, of Ankara-based outfit Genclerbirligi in Turkey's top-tier.
"It's like a dream. At last I can proudly wear the colors of my country on the pitch," said Pote, who is clearly enjoying the tournament.
Unlike his two elder teammates, the 26-year-old Soukou is taking part in his first Africa Cup of Nations.
"My job against the strong Moroccans was to close down space and then, when I won possession, to play a first pass that would relieve the pressure," Soukou said.
Against Senegal the midfielder can be expected to play further back, as center forward Steve Mounie of Huddersfield Town will be available after serving a suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards.
However, this will hardly change Benin's sophisticated defensive tactics.
"We know that we are limited in terms of talent. So we need to be disciplined and play as a team," said coach Dussuyer, who appears confidently optimistic ahead of Wednesday's quarterfinal.
"Our path doesn't have to end against Senegal either,” he said. "The team have enormous character and we are difficult to beat.”
In fact, they remain unbeaten at this Africa Cup of Nations, having drawn all of their matches in Group F, against Ghana, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau, before winning that shootout against Morocco.
Although Soukou and his teammates would love to get their first victory in the tournament within the regular 90 minutes against Senegal – they'll still happily take a win in extra time or even penalties. And they'll also gladly take another phone call from President Talon.