Given their 21st-century individual pedigree, you would scarcely consider Senegal’s qualification for this summer’s World Cup as only the second such accomplishment in their 54-year FIFA affiliation. A much-delayed reinforcement this may represent, but under a veteran – and indeed captain – of their iconic 2002 campaign in Aliou Cissé, a second rising, yet in this wave with sustained results, presents an enticing national prospect.
In the eternal words of Chris Martin; ‘nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard’ – the Scientist coincidentally released only five months on from their quarter-final ‘Golden Goal’ exit at the hands of Turkey in Osaka. From a dire post-2002 hangover, however, finally the West African state has emerged.
At first, the fearless squad fractured. Manager Bruno Metsu – after the campaign in Japan and South Korea returning to the nation as a relative idol, and affirming this status by converting to Islam and undergoing a name change, to Abdou Karim – departed, in private citing frustration with the Fédération Sénégalaise de Football’s (FSF) inability to heal domestic disenfranchisement. In his place, fellow Frenchman Guy Stéphan (now Didier Deschamps’ Les Blues assistant) floundered, leaving decade-long national assistant Abdoulaye Sarr to steward a tumultuous 2006 Africa Cup of Nations assignment. Truthfully fortunate to escape their group after narrow defeats to the regionally hegemonic duo Ghana and Nigeria, Sarr saw his side screech to a semi-final berth in a hell-for-leather knockout tie against Guinea – yet, amidst all that had preceded, an eventual fourth-placed result demonstrated some remaining resolve in an era without its earlier figurehead.
Sarr made way for journeyman Pole Henryk Kasperczak in the fallout, yet even the figure now roundly esteemed for his influence in modern Tunisian, Malian, French, and of course Polish, football could not break the administrative and egotistical shackles that pervaded Les Lions de la Téranga; midway between their group stage opponents’ definitive World Cup appearances, turfed by Angola and South Africa at the 2008 AFCON. Spelling the end of Kasperczak’s hopes and a Metsu-protégé insurgency through former striker Amara Traoré, who despite travelling to East Asia in his nation’s formative five World Cup runouts did not play a single minute, and the election of Green politician and Dakar outfit US Gorée’s president Augustin Senghor as FSF President in 2009, eventually the cost of continental embarrassment would prove the stimulus for long-overdue reform.
An energetic, aspiring and astute figure, now of 53 years, Senghor has led – after 2017 into a third four-year term – with forthright internal assessment and worked closely with handpicked recruits to render accomplished performance now a formality. Meanwhile, Senegal has gained an apparent foothold in the relevant power bases of the sport; Senghor himself appointed to the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee, while former U.N. humanitarian lead Fatma Samoura’s 2016 appointment as FIFA Council Secretary General (the first ever female or African-hailing candidate to assume the role) gained her commendation as first in Forbes’ ranking of the ‘Most Powerful Women in International Sport’ for 2018 and many more follow on various Confederation of African Football (CAF) committees. Within these spheres of influence and pointing to 2018 qualification as a catalyst, Senghor’s seemingly all-encompassing ‘Horizon Foot 2021’ campaign will act as the flagship legacy of his highly sustainable premiership, citing the expansion of professional referees and administrators alongside "the goal of a football that is practiced by everyone, everywhere and all the time on Senegalese territory" as fundamental intentions.
Nonetheless, the era has not been without its depreciations, either in early stages or in recent times. Traoré – not Senghor’s candidate, it must be noted – failed to even qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations before losing all three group stage matches in 2012 to minnows Zambia, Equatorial Guinea and Libya, while the famously diminutive former Bordeaux and France midfielder Alain Giresse (recruited on a remit of Mali’s third-place finish at the latter tournament) inherited a side that again failed to qualify for AFCON in 2013 before falling on his sword with an underwhelming 2015 group stage exit condemned with an all-too-costly 2-0 defeat to Algeria. Amidst Senghor’s drive to revive a social pulse in the sport, also, unforeseeable strains have blighted the nation; five years after October 2012’s fan riots in a home AFCON qualifier lost against the Côte d’Ivoire, a friendly at Paris’ multi-purpose Stade Sébastien Charléty marred as fans streamed across the athletics track and repeatedly disrupted proceedings before an 88th-minute abandonment, and the 2017 Senegalese League Cup final witnessing eight unbearable deaths and injuries to a further 60 present as US Ouakam fans within Dakar’s Stade Demba Diop hurled stones at rival Stade de Mbour supporters and caused a stampede that led to an entire concrete wall’s collapse at the loosely-policed, 30,000-capacity ground. Far from apathetic to the issue, it only initiated greater urgency from Senghor in his ideals for the administration and drew stern words; ‘I would like to reiterate our firm will to banish this blind violence from our stadiums and our football’, condemning it as the ‘antithesis of sportsmanship and the values of fraternity’.
In regards to senior competitive performance, however, in Cissé he has found a kindred spirit. The dreadlocked, often exaggeratedly bespectacled former defensive midfielder (and occasional centre-back) is no gimmick, despite what some may deem a nostalgic tint; willing to graft as under-23 assistant and later manager, through playing droughts and strict selection constraints, before being rewarded with the senior coach’s post at the age of just 40. Let alone his international or managerial exploits, Cissé’s career is unrivalled in many respects; boasting 35 caps over six years of service, he achieved more international recognition than regular game time – in terms of league appearances – at five of his seven club sides, with PSG and Birmingham City the only exceptions to this contrite, dissent-marked and highly tumultuous rule. Averting the Lions of Teranga from tactical missteps and miscalculations against their closest rivals, he has only bolstered consistency as his regime has matured, while facing only a single major schism en route, the form of his African Nations Championship (domestic-based-only player laws applied) outfit asserting the need for Senghor’s pyramid-based domestic reforms, at the very least. While frustrated on a variance of occasions – failing to shake off obdurate Burkina Faso in World Cup qualifying, perhaps fortunate to seal a 2-0 victory in South Africa – that which guaranteed safe passage to Russia – after trailing Bafana Bafana 2-1 in an original meeting annulled after referee Joseph Lamptey’s life ban, and in friendlies held by the ever-rising Uganda and earlier ambitious Madagascar – Cissé’s band of notable European-employed talents has rarely relented in its aspiring, constantly self-affirming drive.
Though Cissé and Senghor serve as ground-breaking accomplices, certain frameworks cannot be overlooked. Breaking from colonialism in 1960, the first ethnic autonomy in the region’s history – at least politically formalised – after centuries of Ghanaian, Dutch, Portuguese, French and briefly British jostling for regional influence was achieved, but scarce cultural individuality at first present. Naturally, the Atlantic port of Dakar – after the disconcertingly Franco-furnished Saint-Louis in the nation’s north west an exclusive harbour of financial bestowal, given its instrumental role in barbaric slave trade traditions – played host to football’s fledgling inroads into local culture, yet not in significant values until the nation’s induction as a constituent region of 1895’s remodified French West Africa, the city’s exonerated status as the colonial multi-nation’s capital in 1902 and first representation in French parliament by a genuine local (Blaise Diagne) in 1914; now one of five residents at the Stade Demba Diop, Association Sportive et Culturelle (ASC) Jeanne d’Arc the first club founded, in 1923. Ploughing a lonely amateur furrow until, joined most notably by Foyer France Sénégal, the post-war inception of the French West African Cup, it was in this competition – in its first iteration open only to Senegalese outfits – that the sport’s formalised local ranks, particularly within Senegal itself, found just cause. Certainly demonstrating the fertile plains of the alluringly waterway-laden nation as culturally able amidst the continent-wide exertion of economic pressures on colonial landlords, aside from the aforementioned 1947 competition, between Foyer, Racing Club de Dakar, ASC Jeanne d’Arc, US Gorée and Réveil de Saint-Louis’s exploits six titles in the tournament’s 13-year tenure evaded Ivorian, Guinean, Beninese, Malian, Burkinabe, Mauritanian, Nigerien and later Togolese clutches.
Fostered in far closer proximity by the French than perhaps the ethnically divergent and militarily respected North African fraternity of Morocco, Tunisia – both granted independence in 1956 – and Algeria (1962, after eight years of bitter conflict) were, West Africa’s cultural talents were degraded on grounds of European distortions of ethnic intellect at a great ultimate cost. Surpassing many of their pre-dissolution kin in spite of formative political wrangling, Senegal harnessed their eminent colonial subsidising and bounded onto the international stage with relative ease; through President Léopold Senghor forging close reverential ties with former Paris-based literary classmate Georges Pompidou especially.
In many more respects, however, was President Senghor’s – no relation to his similarly presidential namesake today, though handily honoured in the national team's eponymous stadium, opened in 1985 – 21-year reign renowned as regionally iconic. Establishing an ethnographically conscious socialist interpretation (Négritude), his intellectually esteemed and pioneering service was mirrored by that of proliferated cultural bonds, and within this a number of shackle-free clubs. Foyer – now renamed ASC Diaraf – led the cause as, inherent of representing the Serer ethnoreligious group of which Senghor was a descendent, their social appeal proved pivotal to five victories in both the formative Senegal Premier League and FA Cup prior to the President’s 1980 resignation. Unable to yet translate this to continental fortune while internally unhinged neighbours revelled – from its 1964 inception, the CAF Champions League (then the African Champions Cup) rewarding five formerly French outposts in West Africa, hailing from Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Guinea with titles on eight occasions before a post-1980 North African impasse – Senegal’s chagrin is yet, even today, to relent.
Five semi-finals – the last of those all the way back in 2004 – in over 50 arduous years of disdainful elimination has not even corrected prospects, serving a fairly damning indictment for the national scope for self-fulfilment. Fortunate anomalies defy the establishment in no other instances, either; only twice since 1980 have representatives reached the quarter-finals (and exited here both times, in 1990 and 2000) of the CAF Confederations Cup (then known as the Cup Winners’ Cup), while progressing beyond the second round only once in twelve entrances into the now-abolished CAF Cup (ASC Jeanne d’Arc, but facing little genuine quality en route to defeat in 1998’s final). No happy coincidence adorns such despondency, then.
Regardless, fixation on international prospects only heightened in a socially advancing 1980s and ‘90s era. Few greater statements complying to the Lions of Teranga’s erstwhile reliance on now-eternal migratory routes, after progressing evident in consistent AFCON qualification, could have been delivered but at the 2002 World Cup. It was only fate, then, that aligned for 21 of the Nord-born Metsu’s 23-man squad based in France’s top two tiers to face off, effectively, with their employers and club-mates in the very first tie of the Orient-based summit. To a cynic, they may have lined up as second-generation independent citizens, with all of the advantages of post-imperialism (literally) at their feet, but there was no love lost on the nation’s greatest stage. Papa Bouba Diop’s scrambled close-range, second-time finish – long before the days of cult hero status in Portsmouth – beyond Fabian Barthez may have sealed victory, but were it not for a misfiring David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry enacting just punishment to a highly suspect Senegalese defence, the tale may have been oh so different, and potentially the unfolding perspective and priorities of the FSF far removed.
Their tournament had not peaked at its first hurdle, however; there are 1-1 and 3-3 group stage thrillers with an admirably experienced Denmark and a Serie A-smattered Uruguay, and furthermore a ‘Golden Goal’ elimination of dark horses Sweden, not to be admonished also. Retrospect guides us so favourably in these exploits, but at the time who could have blamed those in the seats of power for investing their hopes in 21-year-old El Hadji Diouf, who had so coolly assisted Bouba Diop’s sliding finish in Seoul, and 19-year-old Souleymane Camara, among those who had only emerged in the late ‘90s? Enragement with every being and object he came into contact with in England could not have been foreseen for the eventual compulsively volatile quality Diouf morphed into, nor the barren existence of Camara’s Ligue 1 career when side-lined by both Monaco and Nice. 2002 slipping further from their grasp, players, fans and media resorted to deliberate dissent, aforementioned violent stampedes and degenerative slander, respectively, directed at doomed stewardship – the imperative factor, akin to the estrangement of a fleeting and retrospectively idolised father, remained Metsu’s exit.
Few could have even conceived the shaggy-haired Frenchman steering his adopted nation to an ecstatic month-long Far East residence when drawn against Egypt, Morocco and Algeria (alongside Namibia) in qualifying, but the Lions’ resistance to gain three opening draws certainly set the psychological cat amongst the pigeons for their lauded adversaries before narrow eventual World Cup induction. In conditions perhaps conducive to immediate uncertainty – an unprecedented logistical task, let alone geographical and cultural alienations that the contrasting environments of the Republic of Korea and Japan posed – the tournament served, in all assessments, as a foundation for the nation’s exploits, but saw sustainability sacrificed while unable to opt for a truly investable managerial successor. Though not wishing to undermine the role of effective administration in this, but it appears they finally have found one.
Equally, as victory over world and European champions France enshrined their status as the inflictors of perhaps the greatest of all World Cup shocks, the ramifications of destabilising one’s own national base is evident as intensely profound. Returning ‘home’ was not a process from the copybook in this instance, with only one squad member – unused goalkeeper Kalidou Cissokho – plying their trade domestically, and even if players did reach family and friends with countless tales, their experience would have been reduced to somewhat of a snapshot of patriotic elation; a standard to which they would never return after mentor Metsu’s departure. Often evident in such instances, it may require the full exodus of such tainted individuals to even begin to rewrite the inevitable. After dispiriting failure in qualification for the much-coveted 2010 World Cup, the deadline was no longer avoidable.
It is by no means coincidental that Cissé and Senghor now profit – yet equally the forthcoming crop was not entirely theirs to harvest. Nurtured, undoubtedly, the likes of Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly and Cheikhou Kouyaté have been, but their individual entrepreneurship is not to be sniffed at in such circumstances. At this summer’s tournament we may – and certainly hope to – view the peak of the contingent’s powers; an even more enticing prospect when extended to the versatility of talent encapsulated by the seemingly resurgent M’Baye Niang, modern Midlanders Badou Ndiaye, Mame Biram Diouf and Alfred N’Diaye, revitalised Toffees Idrissa Gueye and Oumar Niasse, and the former Premier League lot of Papy Djilobodji, Diafra Sakho and Henri Saivet. Providing Cissé can strike an acute balance in his selection policy – likely the most demanding of his entire managerial career, past, present and future – prioritising his core principles, Senegal surely possess every opportunity of emerging from their group, yet I hesitate to endorse their possibilities as endless.
Just as their club outfits have discovered with constant CAF rule repairs – designed to fine-tune continental competitions with meritocracy and diversity as a guiding ethos – pre-emptive accomplishment can easily be impeded with the ramifications of commercial subservience. Whether merely administrative or indicative of a global corporate trend, the distance between competitive capacities of economically-fuelled organisations and lesser entities in the sport’s international spheres is rife on recent appraisals. Divulging directly into the backgrounds of each of Cissé’s present diaspora, whose general ambition differs only with predecessors in the regional diversity of residencies, these are inescapable footholds of which to harness or become encamped in. Invested in aforementioned English dwellings, Italian, German, Turkish and Benelux conurbations, in the instance of the long-since-unfavoured Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé heavily monetised Chinese franchises, and still an amiable many French sites, a diaspora – several of whom only qualified through parentage – of enviable offensive riches cites Koulibaly as its instrumental exception.
The Lorraine-born centre-back, effectively only rising to continental prominence at the age of 25, now not only has the opportunity to affirm his reputation on a global scale, but also to single-handedly dispel the myth of Sub-Saharan defending. A chartered course, fostered from its base in Eastern France – Metz, to be exact, where the club’s flirting with the Ligue 2 relegation zone ended in an exit in the academy product’s second and final senior season – did not have to travel far to reach new heights in Genk, where Europa League qualification adorned domestic overachievement. Pursued by Neapolitan scouts, after another two seasons he would experience imperative elevation under Rafael Benítez and, even more noticeably, Maurizio Sarri. The ideological exchange would soon be evident in his rising prestige; never particularly perfecting the robust role of a direct and abrasive Benítez squad, his decidedly un-European lithe physical stature and composed presence – even at a towering 6 ft 4 in – served the inheriting Sarri’s philosophy perfectly. Contributing far more efficiently to offensive moves from his relatively restrained new stance – in Serie A, increasing his average number of passes played every match from 54.8 under the Spaniard to 86.2 in this, their title-chasing 2017-18 season (the 2nd highest in their squad, behind Jorginho, and only bettered by three Manchester City players, Nicolas Otamendi, Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho, in the Premier League) – in doing so he has revolutionised the apparent punt-and-hope status quo of recurrent Cameroonian, Nigerian, Ghanaian and indeed Senegalese vanguards at past World Cups. Enhancing his pass completion rate from 86.7% in 2014-15 to 91.3% amidst ever-increasing demands in the past ten months, Koulibaly has cemented himself as Napoli’s offensive fulcrum in a role indicative of present tactical trends, but foremost as one of the global sport’s pivotal, yet wholly unlikely, modern practitioners.
Rewarded for enduring drive and characteristic fearlessness, Koulibaly and Mané, trailed by those who will themselves recognise as a meritocratic move away from their true potential in Gueye, Kouyaté, Hannover centre-back Salif Sané, Amiens striker Moussa Konaté and Anderlecht centre-back Kara Mbodji – a former Genk teammate of Koulibaly’s, and potentially a significant blow to Cissé this summer while yet to recover from an unavoidable December knee operation to add to his sizeable 56 caps – Senegalese football has much to pride. Individual symbolism, with the Napoli and Liverpool duo hailed for respective contributions to historic Serie A and Champions League campaigns, rightfully serves as a major factor in enthusing future domestic progression. Equally, however, it cannot be expected to unveil as eternally profitable.
It is too high-stakes an operation, firstly. Let alone the exacting scouting procedures in place across Central and Western Europe or Scandinavia – regions where the current crop has prospered – and requirement for high-class and fully-equipped youth facilities in West Africa itself, there should now be left no doubt as to the importance of proactive, progressive administrative tendencies. Perhaps at a dearth in Senegalese establishments, especially at a stagnant club level, hopes nonetheless remain of a successor able to replicate and exceed Senghor’s sustainable vision. If searching so desperately for encouragement, just recognise the recent economic and political advancements made; growth rates above 6% achieved now for three consecutive financial years (World Bank), while scoring 75 of 100 on social organisation Freedom House’s annual ‘Freedom in the World’ tables in 2018, a rating they have held since 2012, when opposition candidate Macky Sall became only the second non-Socialist Party President in the nation’s history by defeating the constitution-contravening 12-year leader Abdoulaye Wade. If a matter of interest, this summer’s hosts score just 20 on the same socio-political algorithms – meanwhile, the West Africans have hosted just one major international event in their history, 1992’s AFCON.
Looking, finally, ahead to upcoming prospects, an admirable contingent will certainly leave the tactless ploys of some regional predecessors a distant memory. Of upmost relevance, maturity weighs heavily over Cissé’s squad. Regardless of their manager’s untested – unblemished – status, and perhaps benefiting due to this, the very standing of six – ideally, were Mbodji to make a timely recuperation – potential members of their 23-man contingent as either within five caps of, or indeed having achieved, 50 senior international appearances encourages retorts to those who accuse the nation of lacking prestigious expertise. Unless the 42-year-old Cissé is provoked into a dramatic change of tack, Moussa Wagué (23 years his junior) is set to be the sole teenage representative, and the only remnant of 2015’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup semi-final finish for Les Lions. Few could have considered the impact of political stability on such pragmatism – not elevating those unprepared for such a stage, regardless of youthful prodigiousness – even months before Metsu’s millennium-greeting appointment. Then again, nor could they have estimated the true extent of global recognition for the nation’s vindicated exports. Count your blessings, indeed…
Were it only to be for the physical, and irrefutably psychological, demands of a post-season World Cup environment to curtail Senegalese aspirations, as potentially professed, it would be roundly regretted as a grand shame to the largely disregarded talents of Group H, and the tournament as an entirety. The mere expectation of results, after all, disavows the geographical and cultural acclimatisation not only to host nation Russia, but to the quadrennial tournament itself; Cissé, perhaps, aside, unprecedented for all involved. Inevitably, as the price of success in the sport forces eternal recompense, Mané, especially in a system as physically exacting as Jürgen Klopp’s, will prove the talisman to foot a personal bill; even if omitted from their first pre-tournament friendly in Luxembourg on grounds of exhaustion, enjoying only 13 days of respite between Liverpool’s Champions League Final in Kyiv and a final warm-up challenge, somewhat closer to Russian climates, in Croatia. Koulibaly, having almost racked up a record of minutes played of any season in his senior career, will likely suffer a similar fate; coaches powerless to prevent their players fatiguing on the stage least so acceptable. Logic dictating pragmatism, the only solution is to resort to squad depth – not an overly concerning prospect for most helmsmen penetrating Russian borders, and nor one Cissé would admit as an issue, I’m sure. Protection of one’s players – or indeed those that a nation’s hopes rest on, in this instance – can only extend so far, however, and those involved in the Senegal set-up are only too aware of the limitations imposed upon them. If they are to execute Cissé’s ideals – regularly tending to vary tactics to counter opponents, but typically relying on a lone genuine striker, whether mobile like Niasse and Diouf, more of a direct target in Sakho or an all-round serviceman like Baldé, and a midfield balance of two/three ‘water-carrier’ models and a pair of pivotal, explosive wingers with the ability to drift inside and shoot – they will have to expand from the individual tactical exclusivity that pervades the squad. Perhaps it comes with the territory of quality coaching from a young age, but the philosophical diversity at their current disposal is minimal, and truthfully at this juncture irreversible.
Metsu would not have allowed for such questions, however. Passing away in late 2013, roughly 18 months after being offered the then-vacant Teranga managerial reins, as a victim of colon cancer, the ever-lauded Frenchman would be buried, after Dakar’s hosting of a second funeral – the first, in Dunkirk, close to his birthplace – attended among others by Diouf and dear friend Cissé, in the city’s port district Yoff. His memory only endures longer for this horrendous national grief, while resting in his adopted homeland – the site of less than two years of a 40-year affair with the sport – delivers reverence so aptly. Senegalese football would never operate in quite the same way afterwards, but opting to pay homage through reinvention was the long-overdue reform for partial re-enactment, as now apparent. This exact tournament is their chance to distinguish a new identity and seize the day.
They need not fear Poland, Colombia or Japan, then. When interviewed by FIFA, the gaffer only confirmed this conclusion:
“Although the group does look very tight, when compared to others, we’ll aim to take advantage of any opportunities that arise with great determination, while playing our usual game.”
He is only too aware they control their own destiny in Russia. With nostalgia, there are also heightened expectations of what the nation is capable of in this edition, and rightfully so. Their opponents are fearsome and possess some of the finest managerial assets present at the tournament, but each is far from unbeatable, and none are of the true gilded elite. Given the abundance of issues that remain to be settled, anything could happen. If only we had heard such prophecies before…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!