The Lions of Taranga Roar Once Again

In modern football, there are a lot of golden generations of players. To mention a few, the Dutch national team of the 70’s, the Brazilian national team of 1982 and the French national team of 1998-2000 touched many supporters and were remembered long after their last match was played. In Senegal, the national team of 2002 is remembered as such.

The national team of 2002 is considered as the greatest in the history of Senegal. Its importance is marked by its achievements but nonetheless due to one remarkable game. This team managed to qualify to the quarter finals of the 2002 World Cup but its most memorable moment happened in the opening match of the tournament, which was also the debut match ever of Senegal in the World Cup.

Senegal played against France The French team, the reigning World Champions and European ChampionS at that time was a clear favorite against the unexperienced Senegalese squad. The inferiority of Senegal was a reminder to more than 250 years of French colonialism and subordination over Senegal.

Therefore, the surprising victory of Senegal, 1-0, was not only a simple victory of one team over the other. This victory was a symbol to the liberation of Senegal from French colonialism. For many people in Senegal winning this game was an opportunity to definitively overcome French colonialism and to revenge it. With this victory, many Senegalese saw themselves equal to French. One of the best illustrations to the importance this game had can be found in the words of the Senegalese President in 2002, Abdoulaye Wade, who said that “this day is a special day in the life of a nation.”

 Senegal celebrates "a special day in the life of a nation" (Reuters)

Senegal celebrates "a special day in the life of a nation" (Reuters)

One of the most important figures of that team was Aliou Cisse. Cisse was the captain of the golden team but nowadays his importance is even bigger. Cisse is the current head coach of the Senegalese national football team. However, it seems that his role is not limited to team selection and tactical instructions. It is much more than that. In many ways, his role is to be the link between the current squad and Senegal’s golden generation, and with that link to establish solid foundations for Senegalese football for years to come.

Interestingly, the 2002 team is seen very much as a group and in many ways operates like one. For example, in 2012 when Cisse’s appointment to the national team was considered, El-Hadji Diouf, former star of the national team, stated that “the Senegalese football federation should begin to have confidence in its local resources like France has done with Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc.”

Cisse was eventually appointed as head coach. His appointment, combined with the talent of the current squad that qualified to the 2018 World Cup created constant comparisons between the current squad and the 2002 squad. There is also an interesting link and unique relationships between both generations.

 Aliou Cisse in 2002, connecting between the generations (Reuters)

Aliou Cisse in 2002, connecting between the generations (Reuters)

The current squad offers several talents including world-class players such as winger Sadio Mane and central defender Kalidou Koulibali. Mane, who was the runner-up African player of the year in 2017, is described by many as the heir of El-Hadji Diouf, who won this title in 2001 and 2002. The connection between both players doesn’t stop here. Diouf himself has stated that Mane is his successor, and Mane named El-Hadji Diuof as his Premier League hero. The main reason, according to Mane, is the contribution Diouf had to the Senegalese football and especially his contribution to the campaign of Senegal in 2002, which inspired Mane as a kid.

The connection between generations is not limited only to Mane and Diouf. The staff itself is consisted of many former players from 2002, alongside with Cisse. Instead of relying on foreigners to share their wisdom with the local players, Cisse has chosen to surround himself with national football legends from Senegal’s golden era. Tony Silva, the starting goalkeeper of Senegal in 2002, is the current goalkeeping coach. Omar Daf, who was the starting defender, is the current assistant coach. Lamine Diatta, another pillar of that team, is the current team’s coordinator.

The presence of players from the golden generation is highly important, not only for their professional attributes but also since they can inspire the young generation with stories from the good old days. One example can be found in the fact that a day after the team has qualified to the World Cup, Ferdinand Colly, another great player from the golden generation, was invited to have a dinner with the squad and share his experience. Moreover, when interviewed after the qualification to the World Cup in Russia, Khalilou Fadiga, former attacking midfielder of Senegal in 2002 said in a very open fashion: “I am in contact constantly with Kalidou Koulibali and with Cheikhou (Kouyate) that calls me all the time, Keita Balde and Mbaye Niang. There is a lot of respect between both generations and the main reason Cisse is there is to help them over-achieve our accomplishments.”

 Sadio Mane, inspired as a kid by 2002 squad (Reuters)

Sadio Mane, inspired as a kid by 2002 squad (Reuters)

These connections and special relationship between the current squad and the golden generation players seem like part of a larger plan that is meant to elevate Senegalese football. One of the main errors that the Senegalese association admits today is that it did not use the momentum and the funds entered after the success in 2002 to create solid foundations of football in Senegal. These foundations for the future are created in many cases by creating a link with the past and being inspired by it. The voices heard in Senegal, to encourage local football knowledge and not to rely on foreign wisdom can serve also as a lesson to other African teams. It should not be surprising that this voice comes from Senegalese football. After all, its greatest moment was a symbol for the final liberation of the country from foreign sovereignty in it. 

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