Aliou Cissé wants to aim high with his “Lions of Tiranga” at the World Cup in Qatar. “We know that we have a big task ahead of us, but we will do our best to make our people and our continent proud,” the national coach of African champions Senegal told DW. The 46-year-old was a player in the team that advanced to the quarter-finals in 2002 in Japan and South Korea when Senegal made it to the World Cup for the first time. Cissé and his team now want to trump this surprise coup in the country’s third World Cup appearance after 2002 and 2018.
Senegal will initially play in Group A against the Netherlands, hosts Qatar and Ecuador. “We have ambitions at this World Cup,” emphasizes Cissé. “But we have to think game by game. Our goal is to get through the group first. If we’re in the knockout games then we’ll have enough experience to have a say in the tournament.”
African champion with great team spirit
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Senegal narrowly missed out on the round of 16. At the end of the group stage, the team was tied in points and goals with Japan in second place behind Colombia and the direct duel between the two teams also ended in a draw. Therefore, the fair play rating ruled in favor of Japan. The “Lions” had received more yellow cards than the Japanese in their three group games.
Last February, the national team of Senegal triumphed around its star, FC Bayern professional Sadio Mané, for the first time at the Africa Cup. Ex-national player El Hadji Diouf has a lot of confidence in what is currently the continent’s strongest team at the World Cup in Qatar – not least because it is being led by his former team-mate and captain Cissé. “Aliou is not just a coach, he is a born leader,” Diouf told DW. “The whole country is behind this team and they want to make it one of the best teams in the world.”
The triumph at the Africa Cup in their own country has brought the national team even closer together. “We are a closed unit, a family, everyone plays for everyone,” captain Kalidou Koulibaly told DW. “That’s the spirit that we bring everywhere. We have to represent the Senegalese flag when we play. At the World Cup, we want to show the whole world that we’re a great team – the best in Africa and one of the best in the world. “
Mané – a humble star
If the team wants to go far at the World Cup, superstar Sadio Mané has to be at his best. Senegal’s most famous footballer has had an eventful and successful year. In the Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt, he missed a first-half penalty but then became a hero, converting the final penalty in the shoot-out.
The repeat of the duel against Egypt – at the end of March in the third round of the World Cup qualification – was only decided on penalties. And again it was the nerve-racking Mané who put the last penalty in the net and thus secured Senegal’s World Cup ticket to Qatar. At the end of July, Mané was named Africa’s footballer of the year for the second time since 2019. At that time, the 30-year-old had already switched from Liverpool FC to German record champions FC Bayern for a transfer fee of more than 30 million euros.
The recent successes have not gone to their heads, either Mané or the Senegal national team, Abdoulaye Thiam, a journalist with the Senegalese newspaper Sud Quotidien, told DW. “One of the team’s greatest strengths is the humility embodied by Sadio Mané. He’s a star but always keeps a level head.”
Senegal’s ex-star Diouf, twice Africa’s footballer of the year, is enthusiastic about Mané and sees parallels to his own role: “The greatest thing we have in common is our love for our country. We want to make the population happy. We want role models for them young generation. It’s not just about talent, it’s a matter of the heart.”
Semi-finals, finals, titles?
After reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, a dry spell followed: the Senegalese team failed to qualify for the World Cup three times in a row. It took almost two decades to build up a powerful team again. Before the World Cup in Qatar, Senegal is in 18th place in the FIFA World Cup rankings, making it the best-placed African country in the past four years.
“We want to prove to the world that we are capable of reaching the semi-finals or the final or even winning the World Cup,” Augustin Senghor, president of the Senegalese Football Association, told DW. “If any African country can have this mission, it’s Senegal.”
This article was transcribed from English by Stefan Nestler.