DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — When the World Cup trophy tour reached Senegal, President Macky Sall got the taste of being a champion. It’s an experience he hopes is real in Senegal one day.
Sall optimistically turned to Senegal coach Aliou Cisse that day and said: “It won’t be long.”
That’s some pressure for a team making only its second World Cup appearance.
But that first appearance, in 2002, was memorable. A team of relative unknowns led Senegal to the quarterfinals in a run that began with a 1-0 victory over defending champion France.
The 2018 team boasts more recognizable players, led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. There’s also Monaco winger Keita Balde and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly. It’s a cosmopolitan crew that plays all over Europe, whereas the 2002 squad was almost entirely France-based.
For a country with so much talent, Senegal should qualify for the World Cup more often.
The Senegalese thought that would be the case after a wildly successful debut 16 years ago that came with a freewheeling style of play and memorable celebrations. A national holiday was declared after the victory over France, and it’s still considered among the best performances by an African team. Cameroon (1990) and Ghana (2010), neither of whom qualified for the tournament in Russia, are the only other African teams to reach the quarterfinals.
Alas, Senegal’s preparations for the World Cup have not been perfect. Three recent friendlies, against Uzbekistan, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Luxemburg, ended in draws.
Fasting during Ramadan could present training challenges for the Senegalese, many of whom are Muslims, including Mane. The holy month ends several days before their first match at the World Cup.
Here’s a closer look at the Senegal team:
Cisse was the captain of the 2002 team and has now led Senegal to a second World Cup from the sidelines.
When the team returned to Dakar following a 2-0 win over South Africa to clinch the spot, supporters at the airport picked up Cisse and threw him in the air while singing songs in his honor.
So much more awaits Cisse, potentially.
Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who coached Senegal in 2002, is so revered in the country that his image is on a wall of fame in the “Place du Souvenir African” in Dakar. The exhibit highlights achievements of Africans, including Nelson Mandela. Metsu died of cancer in 2013 and is buried in Dakar.
Cisse, though, has done his best to downplay the high expectations.
Khadim Ndiaye was Cisse’s top choice by the end of qualifying. He is one of the few squad members who play in Africa — starting for Horoya AC in Guinea — and at 33 is the most experienced of the goalkeepers.
Playing regularly might also give him an edge over others who play in Europe, but as backups.
French-born Abdoulaye Diallo was No. 1 at the start of World Cup qualifying, but an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Ndiaye. Diallo plays for French club Rennes, but usually as a backup.
The team also has 24-year-old Alfred Gomis, who was raised in Italy and has seen plenty of action this season for Spal in Serie A.
At 6-foot-5, center back Kalidou Koulibaly is Senegal’s defensive titan. He plays for Napoli but has been linked to a move to clubs including Barcelona and Chelsea.
As the France-born Koulibaly evolved into one of Europe’s top defenders, French fans wondered how they let him slip into the national colors of his parents. After a header for Napoli secured a Serie A win over Juventus in April, even Diego Maradona was buzzing about him and posted a photo holding a Koulibaly jersey.
The wing back position appears solid with Moussa Wague, Lamine Gassama and Youssouf Sabaly. Senegal also hopes to have Kara Mbodji ready to play, possibly to partner Koulibaly in central defense. He injured his knee and has been out for a long time for club Anderlecht, but he did make the World Cup squad.
There’s a Premier League look to the midfield.
The captain is Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham, who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Vieira. Another stalwart is Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton. Cheikh Ndoye (Birmingham) and Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke) were called up by Cisse in qualifying and should play important roles in Russia, as should Alfred Ndiaye, another England-based player.
Mane, who recently became the highest-scoring Senegalese player in Premier League history, is the key to success up front. He’s been overshadowed by the spectacular Mohamed Salah this season for Liverpool, but Mane has been no slouch with his 20 goals in all competitions — including the Champions League final.
The trick will be who else to plays up front to get the best out of Mane.
Monaco winger Keita Balde, another man on the mend from injury, is a possibility, as are Moussa Konate, Mbaye Niang and Diafra Sakho. If Cisse wants experience, he could look to the likes of Moussa Sow or Mame Biram Diouf.
Senegal starts in Group H against Poland on Tuesday in Moscow, then plays Japan on June 24 and Colombia on June 28.
Goalkeepers: Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Khadim Ndiaye (Horoya), Alfred Gomis (Spal)
Defenders: Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), Moussa Wague (Kas Eupen), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), Saliou Ciss (Valenciennes), Salif Sane (Hanover)
Midfielders: Cheihkou Kouyate (West Ham), Alfred Ndiaye (Wolverhampton), Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton), Cheikh Ndoye (Birmingham), Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke)
Forwards: Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Moussa Sow (Bursaspor), Moussa Konate (Amiens), Ismaila Sarr (Rennes), Keita Balde (Monaco), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke), Mbaye Niang (Torino)
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup