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World Cup 2022: High hopes for Senegal's golden generation

November 8, 2022

The Teranga Lions squad is full of talent, as it was in the 2002 World Cup where they reached the last eight. Having won the Africa Cup of Nations this year, can they reach the heights of their predecessors in Qatar?

Frankreich | Fußball: Länderspiel Senegal v Bolivien
Senegal's golden generation 2.0 hopes to put up a good challenge in QatarImage: Sebastian Frej/IMAGO

When Aliou Cisse walked into a press conference in Vienna in late September, the former defender headed straight towards this reporter, the only new face among a travelling group of media that followed the Senegalese national team on its final lap of preparations before the World Cup, and shook hands.

The 46-year-old was captain of the Senegal team that reached the quarterfinals in their first appearance at the World Cup in 2002. Now in charge of the Teranga Lions, he wants to go even further with the reigning African champions.

"We know it is a huge task ahead of us, but we will try our best to make our people proud and our continent," Cisse told DW.

Senegal have been drawn in Group A where they will play against the Netherlands, hosts Qatar and Ecuador.

An ambitious side

Cisse has been allowed to build his side for the last seven years. In that time the team has garnered immense experience, won the African title and narrowly missed out of qualifying for the second round at Russia 2018 after collecting more yellow cards than Japan and missing out by virtue of fair play rules.

"Going to this World Cup, we have ambitions," he said. "But as I say, we must first take the matches one after the other. First, our objective is to get out of the group and then we know that in knockout games of the last 16 and quarterfinals, we have enough experience to be able to really say our piece in the competition."

His former team mate, El Hadji Diouf, believes that Cisse will make his mark.

"We can call Aliou coach, but he is a born leader," Diouf told DW of his former captain. "We are all together behind this team, for one thing, to make this team to be one of the best teams in the world."

Fußball | Iran v Senegal - Coach Aliou Cisse
Cisse: Going to this World Cup, we have ambitionsImage: Johannes Friedl/GEPA Pictures/IMAGO

Unity of purpose

Their victory at the Africa Cup of Nations in February did more than enhance the sense of purpose of this Senegal team, it brought a country of 17 million people together to celebrate their feat. It also built a bond in the team that is hard to break.

"We are a united team, a family, everybody is playing for everybody," Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly told DW.

Koulibaly's international teammates include Bayern Munich star Sadio Mané and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.

"This is the spirit we bring to everything. We have to represent the flag of Senegal when we play. At the World Cup we want to show all the world that we are a great team, the best in Africa and one of the best in the world."

Frankreich | Fußball: Länderspiel Senegal v Bolivien
Koulibaly: We are a united teamImage: Sebastian Frej/IMAGO

Mané magic

If Senegal are to make real progress at the World Cup, they will need their star Mané to be at his best, who is set to miss the start of the tournament after picking up a hamstring injury in a Bundesliga game with Bayern Munich earlier this month.

Senegal's most famous footballer has had an eventful year, with moments that may have broken other players. But he stood up as his team's real star.

He missed a first half penalty during their AFCON final match against Egypt in Yaounde. But he decided to take the final penalty during the shootout and scored to give the Lions their first African title.

To underline his mental strength, a month later he scored the winning penalty inside their new stadium in Diamniadio to hand Senegal their World Cup ticket to Qatar against Egypt.

"I believe that the greatest chance we have today is the humility within this team which is truly embodied by Sadio Mané, who is a star but who has a good head on his shoulders. I believe that Senegal's strength lies in him," Abdoulaye Thiam, editor of the Sud Quotidien newspaper, told DW.

"When you see him, he is simple, he is modest. And when you look at the heart of this team, you cannot have any other behavior than to keep a low profile like him."

Mane's rise in global football was preceded by the career of his compatriot, Diouf, who was the talented gold-toothed star of the 2002 team.

"The thing we have most in common is the love we have for our country. We want to see our country shining. We want to see the people, the population of our country happy. We want to teach the young generation coming. You know, it's not just about talent, it comes from the heart," Diouf said.

Frankreich | Fußball: Länderspiel Senegal v Bolivien
Sadio Mane carries the hope of his countryImage: Sebastian Frej/IMAGO

'We can win the World Cup'

Senegalese international football is in a good place. Ranked 18th by FIFA, the Teranga Lions have been the highest-placed African side for the last four years.

"We have to prove to all the world that we can reach the semifinals or the finals or why not also win the World Cup," Augustin Senghor, the president of the Senegal FA told DW. "And if one African country can say we have the mission to do it, I think Senegal can be this country."

The quarterfinal performance of 2002 made Senegal into a globally recognized football team. The financial rewards from that feat reportedly led to the country's football authorities fighting amongst themselves in trying to spend it. Then they failed to qualify for the next three tournaments. It has taken almost two decades to rebuild to this point.

Senghor said they have learned from the past and a good World Cup run would bring needed money for developing the game locally.

"We want to continue to build our football, build technical centers in all our regions to make it easier for the detection of good players as well as invest in developing a real professional championship in our country," he said.

"And winning the World Cup will be historical. But it will be also a good opportunity to have money to develop football in our country."

Edited by: Matt Pearson