A reason for optimism around Senegal is the stability of the team’s coaching set-up. In charge since 2015, coach Aliou Cisse is hoping to oversee another glorious chapter in the history of his country’s football.
Senegal’s Group A fixtures
Senegal-Netherlands (19:00 local time, Al Thumama Stadium)
Qatar-Senegal (16:00 local time, Al Thumama Stadium)
Ecuador-Senegal (18:00 local time, Khalifa International Stadium)
Aliou Cisse’s approach and tactics
Nicknamed El Tactico by Senegal President Macky Sall, Cisse has been involved in every one of Senegal’s major achievements in the international arena.
He captained the Lions of Teranga at Korea/Japan 2002, coached the team at Russia 2018, and led them to their first continental title at the 2021 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). It comes as no surprise, then, that Cisse will be leading his national team on their Qatari adventure.
Cisse likes his side to play a pragmatic game and believes a solid defence is the key to success. Even when his side is on top, he is wary of them being exposed.
Over the years he has moved towards a 4-3-3 system that can be tweaked to a 4-2-3-1 if necessary, with speedy operators on the flanks and a well-drilled midfield unit standing firm in the centre to prevent the team from being split in two. Crucial to maintaining that unity is the holding midfielder stationed just in front of the defence.
“The coach is a real leader of men. We are his troops,” said Senegal defender Abdou Diallo, heaping praise on Cisse, who calls his players his “boys”. As Diallo went on to explain, that proximity is the bedrock of Aliou’s philosophy. “The fact that he was an international and the captain as well gives him credibility,” said Diallo. “We drink in every word he has to say.”
Key player: Kalidou Koulibaly
Nicknamed “Captain Courage”, Kalidou Koulibaly is one of those players who gives everything on the pitch. The Chelsea defender, who has been an unstoppable force on the right side of the Senegalese defence, has been making a name for himself on the world’s stage for years now.
The Saint-Die-des-Vosges native is a defender with a great capacity to recover balls. Offensively, he is often content to act as an anchor for his team-mates in the build-up of play. However, in front of goal, with his relaxed attitude and his excellent heading ability, he is often effective, especially on set-pieces.
The way he carries himself makes him look more imposing than he is (1.86 m). In his interventions on the ground or in the air, he is explosive. It’s safe to say Koulibaly is Senegal’s rock.
One to watch: Nampalys Mendy
One of the revelations at last year’s continental finals, Mendy continues to impress at international level. “He’s the link that’s been missing up to now,” Cisse told the press after the quarter-final win over Equatorial Guinea at AFCON 2021.
A key performer in the Senegalese midfield, Mendy occupies a holding role, sitting just in front of the central defenders, where he goes about his duties to great effect.
The Leicester City man dictates the play and sets the tempo. He also gets through a lot of work, using his technique to win the ball back and distribute possession.
At the age of 30, he is set for his first World Cup, a grand occasion that will not faze him in the slightest.
Senegal at the World Cup
Senegal’s World Cup story began at Korea/Japan 2002, in Seoul, where the Lions of Teranga stepped out in the Opening Match against defending champions France. It was an occasion made all the more special by the history between the countries and the fact that 20 members of the African side’s 23-man squad played their club football in France.
Few would have bet on El Hadji Diouf and his cohorts beating Les Bleus but the determined west Africans did just that, going down in World Cup history thanks to a lone Papa Bouba Diop goal. “When we got back to the hotel, we were channel-hopping and we saw that we were being talked about all over the world,” said Diouf in an interview with FIFA+. “Television channels in China, in other parts of Asia, and in South America were covering us – the Lions were being broadcast into homes everywhere. We had achieved something extraordinary.”
Keeping their feet on the ground after their stunning win, Bruno Metsu’s side kicked on to qualify for the last 16, where they knocked out a Sweden team containing Henrik Larsson and a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Senegal’s run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat to Turkey in the last eight, though they had already done enough to return home with heads held high.
It was a different story four years later, when Togo halted the Lions of Teranga’s bid to qualify for Germany 2006, prompting Cisse, Khalilou Fadiga and Diouf to retire from international football.
It was not until 2018 in fact that Senegal returned to the world finals. Full of hope, a side spearheaded by Mane kicked off their campaign against Poland. Wearing the No19 jersey – the same number sported by goal hero Diop in 2002 – Mbaye Niang opened the scoring for the Africans, who went on to win 2-1. Then came a 2-2 draw with Japan, followed by a 1-0 defeat to Colombia. That left Senegal tied for second place with the Japanese, with both sides on four points and having scored four and conceded four.
They were ultimately separated by the fair play rule, with Senegal becoming the first side in World Cup history eliminated on account of the number of yellow cards they had received: six to Japan’s four.
So what will Qatar 2022 hold for the Lions of Teranga? “Victory,” sounded a confident Diallo.