Kalidou Koulibaly interview: Senegal captain wants to win Africa Cup of Nations to prove you can play in Saudi Arabia and be competitive | Football News

On the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations, Kalidou Koulibaly leans forward and makes a big statement. “This AFCON will be one of the best,” he tells Sky Sports from Senegal’s camp in the Ivory Coast.

It is perhaps unusual for the captain of the tournament holders to lavish praise on his team’s competition. But that just sums up the AFCON spirit. This competition is not about Senegal, nor any other country. It’s a chance for the entire continent to show its quality on its own stage.

This unity has been visible in recent World Cups: the entire continent getting behind Ghana in 2010 as the last African team standing. The same with Morocco – who became the first African side to ever reach the last four in Qatar 2022.

Now Africa stands as one again amid recent upheaval in its continental competition. It was moved back to the winter two years ago due to an inability to play in the summer heat, thereby bringing up the mid-season ‘club vs country’ row. But the number of quality players out in the Ivory Coast right now shows the value of this tournament.

Koulibaly is a PUMA athlete, who also support the CAF
Koulibaly is a PUMA athlete, who also support the CAF

“Us older players, we have to be proud to be African and to respect our national team and play for our national team,” says Koulibaly.

“For me, Africa will be the future. I hope everybody is conscious of that and they will do everything to make African football go up.

“For me, it’s not just about Senegal, it’s about Africa. We have to work together to make the level of Africa go up.

“We can see that in the World Cup with Morocco going into the semi-finals. Everyone was happy, but for me it was normal because we deserved it. We can show in the future that African teams can be ready to win a World Cup soon.”

Right now, however, the thinking is on AFCON and this tournament’s main beauty is its unpredictability. Unlike the ever-popular World Cup, no team has ever won it twice in a row and current holders Senegal, along with their captain, accept this narrative.

“We think about it – but we know that every AFCON has its story. Now it’s a new story because you have a lot of teams who will be ready to win the title. We want to be part of those teams,” adds Koulibaly.

Koulibaly with the AFCON trophy
Koulibaly with the AFCON trophy after guiding Senegal to victory in 2022

“We know it will be really difficult for us because nobody wants a team to win it two times in a row. But we want to make it the story in our country.

“It will be very difficult because Cameroon, Algeria, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria – everybody is ready for this competition. For a long time, we haven’t seen so many of the big teams so in form.

“We’re going to see good competition and a good level – and the winner of this AFCON will have a lot of success in the future.

“We have a lot of teams which we are 100 per cent sure of, but some teams we’re not. Because in AFCON, it’s not easy. You have the temperature, the climate, the pitch, the time of when you play, we will have to take everything into consideration.

“So I can’t tell you if we’re better than two years ago, but for sure we are more experienced. This is sure. The rest? We will see at the end of the competition. But I think Senegal have what it takes to see out AFCON.”

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A look at some of the best goals scored by African players in the Premier League including screamers from Tony Yeboah, Sadio Mane and Didier Drogba.

Senegal in solidarity as Jackson approaches big stage

Unity was also the name of the game for Senegal two years ago in Cameroon, as Koulibaly led his team to its first-ever AFCON title.

The defender, alongside goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and others, missed the first two games due to a coronavirus outbreak among some of the squad. It threatened to derail their campaign, but the manner of recovery was one of the big lessons learned.

Asked about the secrets to their success, Koulibaly replies: “The solidarity. We had a lot of difficulties at the beginning of the last AFCON.

“We had Covid so a lot of players were absent for the first games. We missed four or five players from the two first games, it was really difficult.

“It was really difficult watching those games in my room, alone with Edouard Mendy. But today, solidarity will help us win the title and to win games.”

Perhaps this year, that solidarity will be helpful for Nicolas Jackson, a striker wanting and wasteful at Chelsea this season. The forward joins Koulibaly, formerly of the Blues himself, in the Senegal squad for this tournamenet – but there is sympathy from the national team captain about life at Stamford Bridge.

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Former Chelsea centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly believes his fellow countryman Nicolas Jackson needs time to settle in at his former club, and believes the striker can have a great career at Stamford Bridge.

“I know that at Chelsea, it’s difficult to be a striker today,” he says. “I was there last year and saw it was very difficult to score goals, and he has seven already? You can see it’s a good start for him.

“Maybe people are waiting for more from him, but don’t forget he’s a young player and it’s a first year for him in the Premier League.

“We in the national team give him a lot of advice. Me and Edouard Mendy, who was also at Chelsea, we know what the club is like and we know the people are there and we know he will have a great future over there if he keeps working like he was working. Not speaking, just working – this is the key.

“We know the big clubs, they want a lot of things from strikers because Chelsea have a lot of good history with strikers – Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o. Those players were amazing and today they are looking for the historical striker and it’s difficult to give that work to Nico.”

‘You can play in Saudi and be competitive’

Koulibaly joined the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (right) by joining the Saudi Pro League in 2023
Koulibaly joined the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (right) by joining the Saudi Pro League in 2023

Two years ago, Senegal’s captain, goalkeeper and star player were all playing at Champions League-level clubs. Now Koulibaly, Mendy and Sadio Mane all ply their trades in Saudi Arabia.

Koulibaly, of current Saudi top-flight leaders Al Hilal, was one of the first players in Europe to jump across to the Middle East nation – and now he wants to be the first to show that such a move can help influence success on the global stage.

“Everyone was thinking: ‘nah, he’s ended up in Saudi Arabia, it will be easy. He will just go to training, take the money and go home’. But it’s not like this,” Koulibaly says.

“When I signed there, it was first to win titles with my club. Secondly, it was about having games to play – as I was not playing a lot at Chelsea. It was difficult for me to show my level, a player used to playing every game, playing one game yes and four games no. The third reason was the project of the Saudi Arabia league.

“We can see that everybody is happy, Sadio is happy in his club, Edou is too. The most important is to bring this positivity to the national team and for us it’s important. People are writing a lot of things about us, we have to show them that it is not a vacation in Saudi Arabia – but it was working to be ready for this AFCON.

“I won’t lie to you, it’s an opportunity to show everybody that you can play in Saudi Arabia and win titles with your national teams. Everybody was asking questions when we signed over there – but when they see the level we have in the national team, we have the same as the others.

“Our objective is to win the AFCON – it will be difficult, we know it – and we will give everything for this objective. But my second objective is to show that in Saudi Arabia, you can play in a good league with a lot of good players and be competitive in the national team.”

Monday 15th January 2:00pm

Kick off 2:00pm

Kalidou Koulibaly spoke to Sky Sports representing PUMA, who have signed long-term agreement to become the official technical partner of CAF. PUMA will be supplying the official match ball at CAF tournaments, providing the kit for referees, and engaging in several marketing opportunities, both inside and outside of the stadium.

Watch every match of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations live on Sky Sports, including Senegal’s opening match vs Gambia on Monday, kick-off 2pm

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