This year Steve Mounié has experienced the highs and lows of football almost simultaneously. With Huddersfield Town the striker endured the most difficult club season of his career but with his country, Benin, he has enjoyed thrilling success and there could be more to come, as he and his compatriots hope to make history at the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Friday.
It is Benin’s first appearance in the tournament since 2010, their fourth overall. “Benin have never won a match at the tournament so, if we win one game, we will be in the history books and that will be great for us,” says Mounié. “It doesn’t matter who it is against. Our first aim is to win a game and then we will see if we can get out of the group.” That would be no mean feat given the pool also includes the holders, Cameroon, one of the favourites, Ghana, and fellow underdogs Guinea-Bissau.
It would also be an ideal way for Mounié to get over a club season that went awry. After a terrific debut campaign at Huddersfield following his £11.5m transfer from Montpellier in 2017, Mounié, like many of his teammates, lost form last season as his team slunk out of the Premier League. “This season will always stay in my mind – it will be a big failure in my career,” he says. “Being relegated is not something you want to live. Of course, the Africa Cup of Nations will help change my mind but I will always think about this season. But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I will take the experience of this season and use it.”
That fuel already seems to have him back firing on all cylinders: on Tuesday he scored one more goal in a single game than he managed in the whole of last season’s Premier League as he struck a hat-trick in Benin’s last warm-up match, a 3-1 victory over their fellow finalists Mauritania.
Mounié, who moved to France with his parents aged four, is vital to Benin. In March he secured his country’s passage to the finals in Egypt by heading a decisive late goal in their last group game, a winner-takes-all derby against Togo. “That was one of the best moment of my career; I’ve got chills just speaking about it,” recalls Mounié of a home match that had been preceded by almost unprecedented excitement in his country.
He remembers the match not only for his goal but more as a significant milestone in his team’s development. This, after all, was a clash so momentous that crowds began gathering at the stadium in Cotonou the day before the game and one of the country’s most popular singers, Queen Fumi, released a song exhorting the team to victory.
“All week before the game we felt the unbelievable fervour of the whole country,” says Mounié. “I heard that some people came from the north of the country to watch the game and they slept in the stadium the night before. That showed how important the game was. And as we approached the stadium we saw so many people who couldn’t get in because it was full. The pressure was on.”
The pressure was on, all right. Not only are Togo neighbours, they are also the side who profited when Benin collapsed to a 5-2 defeat in Mali on the last day of qualifying for the 2017 finals. So when Emmanuel Adebayor drew the visitors level in the 72nd minute in March, Benin fans must have feared missing out again. Mounié banished those thoughts by scoring in the 83rd minute, sealing second place in a group behind Algeria and a triumph that, he says, speaks volumes for the progress made by his team.
“As professionals, you have to turn pressure into positive pressure and, if you can do that, you will have a great performance,” he says. “I feel like maybe one year ago we would have conceded a second goal and lost that match but this time we were very calm. We knew we would not accept losing this game. Experience is important.”
If Mounié will provide a goal threat in Egypt, so too will Stéphane Sessègnon, the 35-year-old former Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion forward who needs one goal to become his country’s all-time top scorer. Sessègnon is suspended for Benin’s opening game. Mounié, though, says his country have plenty of other players who could make names for themselves.
“We are not well known and some of the players don’t play in the best divisions but they deserve to play at a higher level,” he says. “I feel we will surprise a lot of people in this competition. And if some clubs take an interest they could get bargains!” The Spanish side Alavés have already signed the centre-back Olivier Verdon from Sochaux.
Mounié is so enthused about the talent in his country that he is setting up an academy. “If you have the structure, the pitch, all the good things with which to work, then you can make great players who could play in any league in the world.” He is also creating another foundation “just to give – to use my influence and the money I earn to try to help people in my country.”
That is for the future. For now Mounié and his teammates want their performances on the pitch to give a little joy to their people. At the start of this campaign, the Benin football federation mooted changing the national team’s nickname to something more fearsome before deciding that was unnecessary. “We have qualified and some other big animals have not,” says Mounié. “So we will keep this nickname. It’s part of our history. We are the squirrels. And squirrels are strong.”