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Kouyaté: I wanted to cry after AFCON 2019 final


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.”

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!”

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“The celebration of reaching the final helped the country all focus on one goal, just one team; everybody was in peace.”

Cheikhou Kouyaté

The childlike exuberance from Kouyaté at seeing his teammate, a man who is in the same room as him at the time, is truly laughter-inducing.

In fact, there’s laughter most loudly radiating from Palace captain, Luka Milivojević, who, unaware to Kouyaté, is setting behind him during the interview. He begins to laugh at the excitement and reaction of his midfield colleague.

Kouyaté is now on one, with Milivojević’s reaction sparking an equally passionate shout of: “Man like Serbia!” which echoes around the canteen followed by the Senegalese’s infectious laugh.

Milivojević and Kouyaté know each other well, having played together 56 times for Anderlecht. So attention turns to being teammates with the now-Palace club captain in Belgium: “I remember playing at the back with Anderlecht and Luka in the midfield ahead of me and he has progressed a lot now. At Palace the player I see has taken on more responsibility, he is a leader who is constantly talking on the field but at Anderlecht he was a good, quiet boy.

“Players look towards him now; he is a leader, he is our captain, he is a very, very positive guy and I love him!”

Overhearing the comments from Kouyaté – no doubt the intention of our cheerful midfielder – Milivojević jokes about the pair’s size difference in Belgium, with the Serbian more than just the one-inch shorter than Kouyaté he is now.

The No.8 is endearing throughout this interview, from being close to tears post-AFCON to a brotherly love for ‘Man like Serbia’. That doesn’t stop when the conversation moves to a place he now refers to as his “second home”: south London.

Through laughter, of course, Kouyaté laments the rush hour hustle and bustle of the capital. Do he miss it when international duty calls? “Not the traffic! London is so, so busy! But I love London - it is so, so easy for my lifestyle and for my wife. She loves it as it’s so easy for us to visit places or to get our children to school or to visit our friends.

“You know what African people are like: get everyone together for big meals and celebrations and London allows us to do that; I love the community it creates.”

In another honest moment, Kouyaté reveals that hasn’t always been the case in London. You can feel his surprise when reflecting on his initial dislike of the city he now finds himself in for a seventh consecutive year.

“London is similar to Belgium for me,” he says. “But I must say, when I first came to England with West Ham I went back to Belgium every week. A friend said to me: ‘What are you doing going back to Belgium all the time?’ and I was saying: ‘No, no Belgium is for me; I don’t know London.’

“But he encouraged me to explore. He said: ‘If you don’t go out in London you will never know what you’re missing.’ And several months later London became my second home and I no longer go back to Belgium.”

And that wraps up an enjoyable chat over a breakfast of watermelon and toast with Kouyaté. It’s a talk that leaves us fully appreciating the role he has around the club.

Kouyaté being integral to Palace as a footballer is obvious. However, a bigger credit to the midfielder acknowledges his role off the field within Palace’s squad.

He possesses the leadership qualities to captain his country to an AFCON final but can draw laughter and smiles when they’re most needed. Cheikhou Kouyaté’s blend of those two characters makes his role at Palace and beyond imperative.