Senegal’s Lions benefit from their French connection

Senegal’s Lions benefit from their French connection

Only one African side can still reach the World Cup’s knockout rounds. Senegal’s Lions of Teranga need a draw against Colombia’s thrilling Cafeteros in Samara on Thursday. In the popular telling, a new Senegal hopes to emulate the country’s heroes of 2002 who reached the quarter-finals. The link is Aliou Cissé, captain in 2002, and the only black coach in this year’s tournament. But today’s players are very different from “Generation 2002”. Above all, they are better.

All but two of the 2002 squad were born in Senegal. Most moved to France only as adult professionals. Their coach Bruno Metsu — Cissé’s inspiration, who converted to Islam and was buried in Senegal as Abdou Karim in 2013 — picked gritty, disciplined players side largely from the French league.

“Generation 2002” had no stars. Two players did join Liverpool after the World Cup, but the club’s defender Jamie Carragher later commented: “The names El-Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao now make the legs of the toughest Liverpudlians shudder in fear . . . Do you remember being at school and picking sides for a game of football? We do this at Liverpool for five-a-sides. Diouf was ‘last pick’ within weeks.”

Now Senegal do have stars. Sadio Mané scored for Liverpool in last month’s Champions League final. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was anointed best defender in the Italian league by both Diego Maradona (who demanded his shirt) and the CIES Football Observatory website. Winger Ismaila Sarr, 20, who does as much defensive as attacking running, will surely progress beyond his Rennes in France.

One reason for Senegal’s quality is their diaspora in France. Numerous players have benefited from French football’s world-class youth development. Koulibaly, for instance, is the son of a factory worker from a partly Senegalese town in the French Vosges. Like many Senegalese, Moroccan and Tunisian players at this World Cup (as well as Portugal’s Parisian left back Raphaël Guerreiro), he grew up between two cultures. “At home we’d speak Peul [a Senegalese language],” Koulibaly told French magazine So Foot. “And when you opened the door and went out, hop!, you went into French mode.” He cheered for France when they won the 1998 World Cup and for Senegal when they beat France in 2002’s opening match.

At his local club Metz, Koulibaly encountered Senegalese from Senegal. Metz has a partnership with Senegalese academy Génération Foot and among the teenagers dispatched to chilly eastern France were Mané and later Sarr. Remarkably, a Metz team including Mané and Koulibaly managed to get itself relegated to the French third division in 2012.

Like several other Lions of Teranga, Koulibaly played for French national youth teams before being persuaded by Cissé to choose Senegal. “It was my wife who prompted my decision,” Koulibaly recalls, “telling me it would make my parents proud.”

Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, wasn’t happy when he found out months later. However, Koulibaly’s choice paid off. Cissé has come to Russia with a well-drilled team that can play different systems — a rapid counter-attacking 4-4-2 in the opening win against Poland, and then a forward-pressing 4-3-3 in their draw with Japan. Whereas some pundits had expected a one-man team, Mané has played a hardworking collectivist role in left midfield.

Cissé’s mental approach resembles that of England coach Gareth Southgate: a footballer’s first duty at a World Cup is to enjoy it. Koulibaly says: “He tells us not to put ourselves under pressure because the most regrettable thing at a World Cup is to play with jitters, below your level.”

Cissé is the lowest paid coach at the tournament, according to Augustin Senghor, president of Senegal’s football federation. But his achievements since taking the job in 2015 might help counter football’s discrimination against black coaches (not to mention female ones). Cissé is reluctant to discuss colour, but does say, “Just because I have dreadlocks on my head doesn’t mean I’m a lightweight.” African coaches, he remarks, “are capable of reflecting, of motivating, of having a match project.” Reaching the second round would resound beyond Senegal.

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