The Plan | This feels like it could be Senegal’s year and for many observers they represent Africa’s best chance to break the glass ceiling for the continent (the quarter-final stage) at the World Cup. Nicknamed the Lions they have been crowned champions of Africa for the first time and have been at the top of their game for a while now, a spell that takes in two AFCON finals 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 whole tournament has not been ruled out. Tradition in Senegal dedicates a flag delivery ceremony by the president of the republic to the team before they go into a major tournament and before the AFCON in Cameroon the Senegalese head of state had made a speech that seemed to motivate this team like never before. “A lion cannot be afraid,” it said. “This time the only watchword that is worth it is that 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 on that occasion and now it remains to be seen what they can do on the world stage. They qualified for Qatar by winning their group and then beating Egypt in the play-off. Coach 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 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 Gana Gueye (Everton) all in contention.
The Coach | Aliou Cissé has been in charge since 2015 and is, without doubt, the person in Senegal who has been most heavily involved in the country’s most epic victories. A defensive midfielder, more bark and fight than talent, in the team that reached the first AFCON and played at the 2002 World Cup, he has masterminded this generation’s ascent. He was also an assistant coach as Senegal reached their first Olympics, in London 2012. “I know these kids and I have witnessed how they have become men,” he told Emedia Senegal. “We have come a long way together. I saw them grow. We are more than a team. When I select the players I know I can go to war with them.” Upon his appointment he discarded some well-known players such as Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé and Papy Djilobodji and built the team on his terms, with a lot of courage and discipline. “He immediately banned things like hookahs and big watches and anything else that indicated a lack of humility,” one player once said. “We called him the dictator. 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 true super hero in Senegal. For a long time, however, he was going under the pejorative nickname of “Samba Alar”, which means that he was considered someone who shone for his club but could not deliver for the national team. He had to live with that burden for a long time and especially after his missed penalty in the 2017 AFCON, which eliminated the team at the quarter-final stage. That label is history now though. Mané can now call himself the greatest footballer in Senegal’s history. He is the only Senegalese player to regularly be part of the Ballon d’Or discussion and has taken this national team to another level. Today, he is a real hero on and off the pitch. He is the catalyst of hope for an entire continent and embodies all the values that make the average Senegalese person proud.
Unsung Hero | Unlike Sadio Mané who was born and raised in Senegal, Boulaye Dia has dual nationality, like almost half of the national team, and grew up in France. He did not join the national team until 2020 and then it took some time before he properly established himself because of the tough competition for places up front. Now, however, he is already one of the first names on Aliou Cissé’s team sheet. He can play on the right or as a number nine and, crucially, has a good understanding with Mané and scored the first goal in the newly inaugurated stadium in Dakar which helped Senegal qualify for the World Cup. Has had a good season at Salernitana, where he is on loan, after a mixed campaign at Villarreal. Recently told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he did not have a football hero growing up because his family did not have a TV and he couldn’t watch any games.
Probable Line-up (4-3-3) | E. Mendy (Chelsea) – Y. Sabaly (Betis), K. Koulibaly (Chelsea), A. Diallo (RB Leipzig), F.B. Touré (AC Milan) – N. Mendy (Leicester), P.M. Sarr (Tottenham), I. Guèye (Everton) – I. Sarr (Watford), S. Mané (Bayern Munich), B. Dia (Salernitana).
Qatar Stance | Not an issue in Senegal. Like Qatar, the country has a majority Muslim population and feel that the discussion around the World Cup hosts have been created by westernes keen to criticise any culture outside their own. Similarly the players are not ever commenting on controversial issues such as the migrant workers’ conditions. One rare controversy was when Idrissa “Gana” Gueye reportedly refused to play a game for PSG wearing a rainbow symbol on his shirt. The player has not spoken to it but his stance was supported by several teammates and he received a standing ovation at his first game in Senegal after the incident. As it is in Qatar, homosexuality is illegal in Senegal.
National Anthem | Senegal’s national anthem is called ‘The Red Lion’. The Lion is an emblematic animal in the country, embodying the courage of the Senegalese people. The anthem was written by the former president of the republic Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also a world-renowned writer and poet. The music was composed by the Frenchman Herbert Pepert. The lyrics combine festive symbolism and the concept of war and ends with a note of African unity. It 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 with “Get up brothers, here comes Africa together again (…) Hi Mama Africa!”
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 looks helped. His goals helped Senegal reach their first ever World Cup and is still a hero to several of the current team, including Sadio Mané. He is still with the national team, as an advisor to the president of the Senegalese football federation and follows the team wherever it goes. When the striker, who famously had a war of words with Steven Gerrard, is told that Mané is now Senegal’s best ever player he just says that he had two African Ballon d’Ors at the age of 22 “without even trying that much” and 54 player of the match awards in 55 games. No one dares to contradict him of course.
By Babacar Ndaw Faye of Emedia Senegal via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian