In the middle of 2003, the west African country of Benin pulled off a great shock when they ousted Zambia from the 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, thereby ensuring a first-ever participation at a major football tournament for the Ecureuils (Squirrels).
The winning streak continued when the youth team fought their way through to the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005. Such achievements seemed to herald a new dawn for the Beninese, who had surprisingly muscled their way into the continental elite and seemed set to stay there.
Since then, the profile of the country has been given a major boost and the image of their national team transformed from minnows to that of a combative and competitive outfit. Benin confirmed their new-found status by qualifying again for the African finals, this time finishing ahead of 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finalists Togo to book their place at Ghana 2008.
In qualifying for Ghana 2008 Benin recorded three wins, two draws and a single defeat to finish one point behind Mali. Their two-week sojourn at the finals proved to be far from successful, though. After registering three defeats in as many games, conceding seven goals in the process and scoring just one, Benin were quickly back home.
At both events Benin failed to win a single match but the progress in their play is such that they have now have genuine international stars, like the striker Razak Omotoyossi, who was top scorer in Sweden's Allsvenskan last year, and Stephane Sessegnon, who has earned regular rave reviews for his performances with Le Mans in France.
In the qualifiers for Germany 2006, Benin managed to progress past the first phase for the very first time, and at the fifth time of asking.
Their opponents were Madagascar - not considered a powerhouse of African football. And although the islanders were ranked above Benin in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, few football fans in Benin thought that they would fail to advance to the second round. Of course, it was more dramatic than that.
In the first leg in Antananarivo, things did not go all the Squirrels' own way and only a late goal by Jean Jaurs Corea saved them from going into the return leg one goal down. But if they thought that things were difficult in Madagascar, they were in for a huge shock at home in Cotonou as the visitors raced into a two-goal lead within the first 22 minutes. Oumar Tchomogo then scored twice before the hour to bring his side back on level terms, but knowing that a 2-2 draw would not be enough, Benin pushed everything forward. They were rewarded in the final minute when Tchomogo made no mistake from the spot - giving his side a historic place in the second round. At their fifth attempt, Benin had finally managed to progress beyond the first hurdle at the FIFA World Cup preliminary stage.
The rest of the campaign proved tough for Benin, paired in the same groups with heavyweights Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire and Egypt. But it also proved a good testing ground for future exploits, as shown in the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying. The Squirrels finished bottom of Group 3 with a mere five points, gleaned from one win, two draws and seven defeats. There were any number of coaching changes, with Ghana's Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, Wabi Gomez, Frenchmen Herve Revelli and Serge Deveze, and Edme Codjo all trying their hands but failing to solve Benin's problems.
They first entered the competition in the qualifying rounds for Germany 1974. Then still known as Dahomey, they lost twice in the first round against Ghana. After a 12-year wait, Tunisia proved too strong an opponent in the 1986 competition. In the qualifying rounds for USA 1994, Benin was drawn into a group with Tunisia, Morocco and Ethiopia and although they managed to beat Ethiopia at home, they finished bottom of the group. In the qualifying rounds for Korea/Japan 2002, they were knocked out by eventual finalists Senegal in the first round.
Now Benin look ahead to a serious assault on the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals, having enlisted Frenchman Michel Dussuyer to lead their cause. And he is the first to admit there is a bevy of talent at his disposal.