It feels like Senegal’s year and expectations are so high back home that winning the tournament has not been ruled out…

By Babacar Ndaw Faye

The plan
This feels as if it could be Senegal’s year, and for many observers they represent Africa’s best chance to go further than any other team in the continent (the quarter-final stage) at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Nicknamed the Lions, they were crowned champions of Africa for the first time in February, and have been at the top of their game for a while now, a spell that takes in two Africa Cup of Nations finals (the other was in 2019) and qualifying for two consecutive World Cups. There is a huge amount of confidence flowing through the team and the expectations back home are so high that winning the tournament has not been ruled out. Tradition in Senegal dictates that there is a flag delivery ceremony by the president of the republic to the team before they go into a major tournament, and before the delayed 2021 Afcon in Cameroon the Senegalese head of state, Macky Sall, made a speech that seemed to motivate this team as never before. “A lion cannot be afraid,” said Sall. “This time … we must go and take this trophy and come back, because the nation has been waiting, with hope, for so many years. With determination and courage, make Cameroon 2021 the time of victory.”

The words had the desired effect, and now it remains to be seen what this team can do on the world stage. Senegal qualified for Qatar by winning their group and then beating Egypt in a playoff.
Aliou Cissé prefers to play a 4-3-3 formation, but there are problems at left-back where Saliou Ciss, who was outstanding at the 2021 Afcon, has been without a club since leaving Nancy in the summer.
Sadio Mané is the focal point up front, and the midfield has a strong Premier League feel to it with Nampalys Mendy (Leicester), Pape Matar Sarr (Tottenham) and Idrissa Gueye (Everton) all in contention.

The coach
Aliou Cissé has been in charge since 2015 and has been key to Senegal’s rise to the top. A defensive midfielder who had more bark and bite than raw talent, as a player he featured in the team that reached Senegal’s first Afcon final in 2002 and also made it to the 2002 World Cup finals.
An assistant coach when Senegal reached their first Olympics in 2012, after he took on the top job Cissé discarded some well-known players, including Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé and Papy Djilobodji, preferring to build the team in his own image – which meant an emphasis on courage and discipline.
He also banned hookahs and any items, including flash watches, that might be construed to indicate a lack of humility. “We called him the dictator,” said one player anonymously. “He told us: ‘This is how I work, I let the ones who do not accept the rules leave.’”

Star player
Sadio Mané is a superhero in Senegal. For a long time, however, he went by the pejorative nickname of “Samba Alar”, which means he was considered someone who shone for his club but could not deliver for the national team. That burden increased after his missed penalty in the 2017 Afcon finals, which eliminated the team at the quarter-final stage. But the label is history now. Mané can rightfully call himself the greatest footballer in Senegal’s history. The only current player from his country to regularly be part of the Ballon d’Or discussion, he has taken the national team to another level.

Unsung hero
Unlike Sadio Mané, who was born and raised in Senegal, Boulaye Dia has dual nationality, having grown up in France. He did not join the national team until 2020 and took time to properly establish himself, mainly due to the tough competition for places up front. Now, however, he is one of the first names on the team sheet. He can play on the right or as a No 9 and, crucially, has a good understanding with Mané.
Dia scored the first goal in the newly inaugurated national stadium in Dakar, which helped Senegal qualify for this World Cup. He has had a good season at Salernitana in Italy’s Serie A, where he is on loan, having had mixed fortunes at Villarreal in Spain. Recently he told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he did not have a football hero growing up because his family had no TV and therefore, he could not watch matches.

Qatar stance
Not an issue in Senegal. The country has a majority Muslim population, and most people feel the discussion around Qatar’s suitability to host the World Cup has been driven by westerners keen to criticise any culture outside their own. The players themselves have said nothing on controversial issues such as the conditions of migrant workers in Qatar. One rare controversy was when Idrissa Gueye reportedly refused to play a game for PSG wearing a rainbow symbol on his shirt. The player has not spoken about the incident, but his stance was supported by several teammates and he received a standing ovation at his first game in Senegal after the incident. As in Qatar, homosexuality is illegal in Senegal.

National anthem
Senegal’s national anthem is The Red Lion, with music from a Frenchman, Herbert Pepper, and lyrics written by Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet, writer and politician who was the first president of the republic from 1960 to 1980. The anthem starts with the line “punch all your koras, hit the balafons” before continuing with “the red lion roared, the tamer of the bush” and ends on a note of African unity with: “Get up brothers, here comes Africa together again … Hi Mama Africa!”

All-time cult hero
Who else but El Hadji Diouf, the superb striker from the early 2000s who played for Liverpool and Bolton, among other teams? He is the embodiment of Senegal’s first spell of success in world football, and it is fair to say that his bad-boy demeanour helped. His goals allowed Senegal to reach their first World Cup finals in 2002 and he is still a hero to several of the current team, including Sadio Mané.
He continues to work with the national team as an adviser to the president of the Senegalese football federation. When Diouf was told that Mané is now widely considered Senegal’s best ever player, he shrugged his shoulders and said he had two African Ballons d’Or at the age of 22 “without even trying that much”. –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *