March of the Lions of Teranga: Senegal’s David and Goliath Story

Senegal are back after a sixteen-year-long wait and with them have brought a hope of a brighter future to put Africa back on the map with a squad far more adept than the 2002 fairytale men.
March of the Lions of Teranga: Senegal's David and Goliath Story
Art by Charbak Dipta.

Joseph Lamptey is a name that has put a smile on every Senegalese’s face for the last six months. One may ask why? Why is an unsuspecting Ghanaian referee the cause for nationwide glee? The answer to that lies in a Bafana Bafana victory over Senegal in a World Cup qualifier in the winter of 2016 — a victory facilitated by the 43-year-old Lamptey’s “match manipulation”, offering South Africa a penalty from an alleged handball inside the 18 yard box, which had clearly hit Napoli centre-back, Kalidou Koulibaly’s knee. His incompetence and disgraceful actions to influence the result made FIFA enact swift justice banning him for life from all competitions. Senegal was provided a way to right their wrongs and to have a better claim at their place in the World Cup in Group D of the third qualifying rounds in Africa — a replay.

In away territory and with the history of the competition against them, the eleven Senegalese stepped onto the pitch of the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa. Inspired, determined and driven, the entire team put the cause of qualifying for a World Cup for the second time ever ahead of them, and after the dust was settled, they came out victorious, winning two goals to nil, all thanks to Diafra Sakho’s clinical right-footed finish and a luckless Thamsanqa Mkhize’s own goal in the opening half hour of the game.

Fifteen million Senegalese rejoiced at the final whistle, players hugged each other, ran the course of the field to celebrate with the fans present, but one man found himself taken over by the ecstatic occasion. Visited by a ghost of his past, Aliou Cisse, manager of the Senegalese football team, stood with a smile on his face almost disbelieving the gravity of the moment that he had found himself in. Although, the moment was not at all alien to him. Sixteen years ago, he was in another fairytale, leading his entire nation in Senegal’s first-ever World Cup with an armband in the mystical eastern lands of South Korea and Japan. His eyes gleamed through his spectacles, in hope of facing the Goliaths of world football and pelting them down once again with a team consisting of a more cosmopolitan crew than the last time.

With a decade of nothingness looming over them, Senegal’s tireless, almost Sisyphean task of garnering international recognition turned into a success through the Liverpool wide-man, Sadio Mane’s industry and incisiveness against the South African defence in the deciding qualifier. This helped the team collect those five stones that the famous 2002 Senegal squad had gathered to defeat the Goliaths in the form of France and Sweden and make their own history. With no success in their own continent in the African Nations Championship for quite a long time and instability within the squad, the only thing that kept them going was their biblical display against the then World Champions France with whom the entire nation has had a complicated relationship for about three hundred years. Senegal gained their independence from the distraught colonisation by France in 1960, but it wasn’t before the famed day of 31st May, 2002, that the entire nation had a metaphorical victory over their historical oppressors.

Bruno Metsu, a Frenchman, was Senegal’s tour-de-force along the sidelines who had devised the sling with which the then World and European Champions France were brought down to their knees — through careful video analysis of the opponent’s weaknesses, and thus exploiting the lack of pace of the France midfield and implementing their own pressing game. Within thirty minutes, the colossus of a holding midfielder, Papa Bouba Diop beat Fabien Barthez in goal to reinforce a shift in the traditional power balance between the two countries. After another hour of sheer will by Aliou Cisse and his compatriots, they, in their first-ever World Cup appearance, managed to bring down the team that sported the best player in the world, Zinedine Zidane, along with top-scorers from three different leagues in the 2001-02 season, in Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Djibril Cisse. History was forged that night with an upset of cosmic scales, Lady Luck appearing out of nowhere to save the West-African David of a nation with two French attempts hitting the woodwork in that opening game of the 2002 World Cup.

Playing with a compact system of 4-1-4-1, with strong and astute midfielders in the middle who are kept busy with spraying passes to the flanks to start the counter-attack when they are not impersonating a wall for the opponents, Cisse took a couple of pages out of the late Metsu’s book while formulating his own version of David — the giant killer.

Progressing through to the quarterfinals of the World Cup sixteen years back, Metsu had utilised El Hadji Diouf’s pace and guile in the left flank to outwit the aged and laggard, something which the apprentice, Cisse usually adapts to free attackers like Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr from their shackles. Grzegorz Krychowiak’s legs might have been still hurting, because of how the anchor men in Everton’s master tackler, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Alfred N’Diaye worked in tandem in the first group stage match for Group H, to release threats ahead of them in the pitch. This recognition of the talents in the squad with which the preparation before going into battle happens offers the 42-year-old Senegalese coach with a range of armoury to inflict pain on the opponents, which explains why well-known names for the fanatic like Keita Balde Diao, Cheikhou Kouyate and Diafra Sakho didn’t start that night against Poland’s frail system.

The Philistines tormented the land of Israel for years, and while the torment has no relevance in a footballing scope, Senegal can still be paralleled with the purity of the promise that they hold, of how they reciprocate the feeling of all the lovers of the game from the darkest corners of each continent, of how David braved against Goliath for the people.

For every stone that will hit the remaining opponents in Colombia and Japan in the remaining two games of the group, the force with which they are hitting them depends on talented individuals, who vary in their impact, but never in their commitment. And the manager knows it and is confident about it, evident from when he said: “We’ll have to go there without an insecurity complex, play our natural game and stick to our African identity, which defines our football.”

Starting from the 198 cm tall towering personality of Kalidou Koulibaly, with his reading of the game and sheer potential to puncture the ball on heading, to the grit and dynamism of Idrissa Gana Gueye who is no less than a heartbeat to the entire team, to the smiling enigma that Sadio Mane is in and around the box with the ability to apparate the ball anywhere behind the goalkeeper’s arse – all of them personify that distinct Senegalese identity. The team also has a pool of talents overflowing in the squad with less recognisable names in Salif Sane, Kara Mbodji, M’Baye Niang, Moussa Sow and Mame Biram Diouf. It’s fair to say that Cisse will have more headaches than laughs until he fixes a starting lineup that brings alive the sharp passing movement coupled with tactical dribbling strategy, which might catapult the dreams of the entire nation forward, and shut Slaven Bilic’s mouth amongst others who stereotype them behind words like pace, power and physicality like borderline racists.

Among other hurdles, the one which has posed a threat previously halting the occurrence of the many heroic deeds, is Senegal’s boardroom organisation and lack of transparency. Maybe that’s why ex-Cameroon manager, Volker Finke doesn’t believe that an African team will make it far in the World Cup this year. Budgets not allocated, infrastructure problems, bills being unpaid and other unimaginable problems are to be avoided and tackled with good management nous by them, or else a simple miscommunication like a team bus being late might affect the morale of the team.

“That’s why teams of the north are usually stronger. Ghana, Cameroon and Ivory Coast clearly have better players than the North Africans. But the North Africans are more organized and structured, for instance when it comes to work within the associations or organizing training camps,” the 70-year-old German said to DW. Before entering the arena with the heavyweight footballing Philistines, Senegal has to fight an inner fight and be victorious, and if the showing in Spartak Stadium is any indication, the Senegal board can be congratulated for overturning the 2010s crisis in their footballing sphere. By making winning a habit and instilling composure and proper organisation in its management, the World Cup might just be the first step for an even brighter future for the nation, and maybe even other African nations.

Wearing a shepherd’s garb and endowed with nothing but the urge to do the right thing — to represent their country right and set the standards high; the group of eleven Senegalese hold the promise to give their all, if they haven’t already. Channelling the story of the yesteryear and inspiring the men of the new, the Lions of Teranga are indeed in a position to leap in front of its competition without anyone discarding them as a one-off. To pounce on the opportunity, they must maintain the momentum from the first game and stick to their slings to bring down even bigger fish as they progress to the knockout stages.

Because, if not a progression into another quarter final, then what would they even be roaring for? Because, there are millions around the globe, just waiting to comprehend how loud and consistent that roar is, as Senegal would certainly build ahead of their feat of being the first African nation to win a game in the 2018 World Cup. Because, just like how even a small decision can decide the fate of a nation, the same way there’s belief that even a small man can cast a very large shadow.

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Debkalpa Banerjee

Loves the deft nutmegs, time travel paradoxes, existentialist films, scrambled eggs, and some unhealthy fanaticism of the boys in the Anfield red.