Senegal burst into the footballing pantheon twenty years ago, when they famously opened the 2002 World Cup by beating title holders France 1:0 thanks to a spirited defensive effort and a goal by the legendary striker Papa Bouba Diop. This was, of course, their World Cup debut; they went on to lose in the quarterfinals.
These days, Senegal is a force to be reckoned with. Having waltzed through their initial group in qualifying, they had to resort to penalties to take down Egypt led by Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. The same scenario was in effect just a few weeks earlier, when Senegal won their first Africa Cup of Nations. They have truly crowned themselves as kings of Africa.
How do they play?
For decades, African football was known as attractive and wildly attacking, with little discipline on the defensive end and goalkeepers often ending up on the highlight reel for the wrong reasons. Although several national teams are still raw tactically, Senegal – and other top African sides – are as disciplined as their competitors around the world.
Thanks to a vast array of players on the books of European top clubs, Senegal might be the most dangerous of them all. Head coach Aliou Cisse, who has been at the helm since 2015, is tactically adept and knows his players inside out. They don’t statistically excel in anything in particular but can do a lot of harm in different ways.
Why they can win?
Led by 30-year-old Bayern Munich star striker Sadio Mane, Senegal also has a truly world-class backbone formed by goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and defender Kalidou Koulibaly, both of Chelsea. The sidekicks aren’t half bad either, with most of the squad playing in top European leagues. There is certainly quality and experience in key positions for a deep run, with the 2002 captain Aliou Cisse aiming to go further as head coach.
Update Nov 10th. Sadio Mane picked up a serious injury in a Bundesliga match against Werder Bremen, which makes his participation in the World Cup rather unlikely!
Why they can lose?
Four years ago, Senegal played some of the most organized football ever seen by an African team, but couldn’t get through a balanced group of Colombia, Poland, and Japan. While they can match up with anyone on their day, it feels the same the other way around and Senegal has met almost no worthy adversaries since the days of Russia 2018.
The leading stars
Mane is not only the darling of Senegal but one of the best players in the world. Although he is yet to hit his Liverpool peak for Bayern, the striker has always been the top dog for his country and much will rest on him finding the net. On the wrong side of 30, this might be his last chance for World Cup glory.
The fresh faces
All other positions can be considered covered, but head coach Aliou Cisse must be wondering who to start as the central striker. In September, 25-year-old Boulaye Dia got the nod and delivered against Iran, but the frontman has still only scored three times in 19 games for his country. After a disappointing stint at Villarreal, he has had a new lease of life at Salernitana this season and might have the confidence to star for Senegal too.