Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, whose goals have lifted Newcastle United to the brink of Champions League qualification, are likely candidates to spearhead Senegal’s Olympic soccer push.
The 26-year-old strikers, who’ve scored 27 goals in Newcastle’s rise to fourth place in the Premier League, may line up together as two of Senegal’s three permitted overage players for the men’s Olympic tournament. The competition, unlike the women’s event, is open to only three players over age 23.
“I think Papiss Cisse and Demba want to come,” national team coach Aliou Cisse said in an interview after yesterday’s Olympic draw at Wembley Stadium in London. “It’s a big opportunity for them.”
Senegal will meet Great Britain in its opening Olympic match July 26 at Old Trafford in Manchester. The African nation was the last to qualify for the 16-team event, beating Oman 2-0 in a playoff two days ago. It will also play Uruguay and the United Arab Emirates in Group A.
Ba has 16 goals since joining Newcastle on a free transfer from relegated West Ham at the start of the season, while Cisse has scored 11 times since arriving in January for about 10 million pounds ($16 million) from German club Freiburg. They’ve helped lift Newcastle above the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham, teams with budgets several times larger than the Magpies.
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley’s strategy of replacing established high-earning stars with lesser-known foreign imports may yield the fourth-place finish needed to secure a Champions League berth for the first time since 2003. The Magpies are three points ahead of fifth-place Tottenham and four above Chelsea with four games remaining in the season.
Qualifying for the Champions League, Europe’s elite club competition, begins in August, a few days after the end of the London Olympics. Clubs have tried to block players from participating in the Olympics in the past, arguing the tournament isn’t as important as the World Cup or regional championship, but soccer’s governing body FIFA says they must be released.
“Not many players have an opportunity to play in these events,” Aliou Cisse said. “The World Cup you have an opportunity to play every four years and it’s the same here.”
Little was known about Papiss Cisse before he arrived in England. Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said he’s been trying to aid his transition to the U.K. by providing home comforts such as goat curry in the team’s canteen.
“I think for the players it’s very important to have a good environment at the club and I feel that he’s a happy boy,” said Aliou Cisse. “And if you’re happy, it makes a difference.”