Senegal eager to break out of the shadow of 2002 team

In Senegal, the 2002 World Cup team remains a source of national pride.

This year’s squad is eager to create some new memories.

The run to the quarterfinals in Senegal’s World Cup debut in Japan and South Korea 16 years ago captivated the tournament as the charismatic and carefree West African team beat defending champion France and charged through to the last eight.

People still talk about the 1-0 win over France , Senegal’s former colonizer, in the opening game. They also remember the counterattack equalizer against Denmark, Henri Camara’s golden goal that finished Sweden, El Hadji Diouf’s swagger and coach Bruno Metsu’s hair.

The 2002 team has cult status in Senegal. That creates a lot of pressure to follow in its footsteps. This Senegal squad , blessed with the talents of Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly, is on a different World Cup journey.

“If we’re here, it’s thanks in part to the 2002 generation,” captain Cheikhou Kouyate said. “Now, we want to write our own story.”

Senegal’s second World Cup begins in Moscow on Tuesday against Poland in Group H, which also has Japan and Colombia.

So much has changed since 2002. Academies built state-of-the-art facilities and have been churning out prospects like Mane, Idrissa Gueye and Ismaila Sarr.

Migration to Europe and relaxed FIFA rules have resulted in larger selection pools. More than one-third of Senegal’s roster was born abroad, mostly in France. Keita Balde, the Monaco winger, was born in Spain. In 2002, all but two players were born in Senegal.

But it doesn’t matter if some of the 2018 players can’t find their way around Dakar. President Macky Sall and fellow Senegalese expect results.

“Do as well as, or better than the 2002 generation,” Sall said when he hosted the team last month. “Go as far as possible. You have the potential.”

The 2002 team mostly consisted of unheralded grinders playing for French clubs, although Diouf had agreed to a Liverpool move after a strong season for Lens.

Familiarity helped in Japan and South Korea. Diouf passed to Lens teammate Pape Bouba Diop for Senegal’s most famous goal against France. And the counterattack against Denmark included Sedan teammates Camara and Salif Diao.

Today’s team has a more cosmopolitan feel. They play for clubs in England, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and Germany as well as France. And the players attract personal fan bases on social media.

The test will be if a squad of multimillionaires can become a cohesive unit in Russia.

“In 2002, we had a team with a lot of character, strong character, from the goalkeeper to the striker. It’s absolutely different from this generation,” Khalilou Fadiga, a midfielder from the 2002 squad, told The Associated Press.

Aliou Cisse is the link to both teams, the captain in 2002 and now the coach.

“In 2002, we had a French coach (Metsu), from a former colonial country. Senegal had beaten France, but with a French contribution,” said Malamine Tamba, president of Senegal supporters club Allez Casa. “Now, it’s made in Senegal, by Senegalese. For us, it’s very significant.”

Cisse is no-nonsense. Metsu, who died in 2013, was different. He didn’t set curfews and allowed his players to ad-lib. After Diouf decided to switch from the left side to the right during the Sweden match, Metsu said: “My strikers decide for themselves. They have to feel it. It was his inspiration.”

Cisse said he hasn’t decided where to put Mane, who played mostly on the left side this season with Liverpool.

“Sadio is capable of playing on the left, he’s capable of playing on the right, he’s capable of playing behind the striker,” Cisse said.

Matching the 2002 run requires getting out of the group and beating the next opponent — from Group G, possibly Belgium or England — to reach the quarterfinals where Brazil or Germany may await. No African team has reached the semifinals and only Cameroon, Senegal and, most recently, Ghana have made the World Cup quarterfinals.

Senegalese fans have waited a long time to see if the 2002 success was a one-off. Mamadou Assane Ba was 10 years old at home in Pikine when Senegal beat France.

“We ran out onto the street carrying the Senegalese flag,” said Ba, now a university student who also runs a Liverpool fan club. “We danced. We sang. It was a huge party.”

Cisse said they can do better than 2002 because “football is still football” and it’s unpredictable.

“No one knows who is going to win the World Cup,” the coach said. “My dream is to win and bring it to Senegal. We know it will be very hard. In any case, we’re certainly not going there for tourism.”


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