By Conor Keane

The word legend gets thrown about so easily in football these days that the term doesn’t hold as much gravitas as it used to. But when it comes to Senegal boss Aliou Cissé, the term is more than justified and perhaps even an understatement, given how much he has done for the Lions of Teranga as a player and now as their coach.

As his side battled their way to victory over Ecuador in their crucial Group A decider, he achieved something that no other figure in Senegalese football has done before by taking them to the knockout stage of the World Cup not once, but twice. The first time as captain and the second as manager. It’s fitting that their latest qualification comes 20 years after Senegal’s first-ever tournament finals.

Through his efforts on and off the field, he has helped put Senegal on the footballing map not just in Africa, but across the world. 

If you cast your mind back 20 years, Senegal took the World Cup by storm on their debut as they fought their way to the quarter-finals. In their first game on the biggest stage, they stunned reigning champions France as they came away with a 1-0 victory and showed the world that they were not just there to make up the numbers. This came off the back of Senegal reaching their first Africa Cup of Nations final earlier in the year where they were beaten on penalties by Cameroon – with Cissé missing the deciding spot-kick.

Cissé and his teammates went back to the drawing board because they knew the biggest moment of their careers was to follow just a few months later. And while their fairy tale run in South Korea and Japan came to an end against Turkey in the quarter-finals, it instilled pride in the African nation and Cissé and co-wrote themselves into Lions of Teranga legend. For many of that team, the story stopped there, but not for Cissé – his story was only just getting started.

He may have retired from playing international football in 2005 but it didn’t take him long after his domestic career came to an end for him to gravitate back to where he belonged; the Senegal national team set-up. Cissé took his first steps into management by assisting the previous two Senegal bosses, Joseph Koto and Alain Giresse, over three years. Cissé learned the tricks of the trade under his two predecessors before implementing his own style when taking the reins.

After Girresse failed to get Senegal out of the group stage at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, the Senegalese Football Federation turned to Cissé, who at the time had no previous management experience, but it was a decision that turned out to be a masterstroke.

No man living has a greater passion for the national team than Cissé and from that love inside him, the seeds for a brighter future were sown. Over the past seven years, he has guided the Lions of Teranga to two AFCON finals, in 2021 and 2022, winning the latter to claim their first-ever major piece of silverware. He may have missed his spot-kick two decades ago, but he prepared his side to not make the same mistake as they beat Egypt 4-2 on penalties.

Under his exceptional stewardship, Senegal have also reached consecutive World Cup tournaments for the first time and are looking ahead to a maiden meeting with England in the round of 16 in Qatar. He has also done this without their star player Sadio Mane, who was ruled out on the eve of the tournament. 

While there have been no past contests with the Three Lions to compare to, Cissé spent four years of his playing career in the Premier League with Birmingham City and Portsmouth, so he will have some intel on what to expect both on the field and from the crowd.

His natural aura as a leader radiates onto the players who are all hooked on his philosophy. These qualities have made him the perfect coach for the Lions of Teranga. –

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