The the Air Senegal plane landed in Doha in the wee hours of Monday morning, airport staff craned their necks to find a certain recognisable face.
They did not find Sadio Mané, for he did not join the 90 per cent or so players who converged in Paris for this trip. Just as he was being sought at the airport, Senegal will have to get used to the global press asking questions about the 30-year-old’s absence.
He remains the Teranga Lions’ biggest brand, and a symbol of how far they have as a national team.
Back in the day – 2002, if one wants to be precise – it was a very Senegal thing to debut at the World Cup, reach the quarterfinals, and then promptly vanish for the next 16 years.
Recent success has dulled the collective memory, it seems. For years, the Teranga Lions were not an African football powerhouse. Had never won an Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), frequently qualified for the tournament (would either finish fourth or in the last eight), assembled superb teams, and then flat out whimpered before they roared.
It was with this background that when they arrived at Russia 2018, the Teranga Lions were expected to Teranga Lion. And, of course, they did – making history as the first country ever to be eliminated via the fair play rule. Imagine the ignominy.
“In 2018 we could’ve done better, but things didn’t work out, and it’s a shame because we had a great generation of players. In Qatar, we will benefit from that 2018 experience,” defender Kalilou Koulibaly told Al Jazeera.
Then, as now, the West Africans will be led by the talismanic Sadio, who is presently getting treated in Austria as he hopes to heal before their first game against the Netherlands next Monday, November 21. SuperSport understands that the opener will come too soon for him, however.
In the last four years, however, the group of players have grown up tremendously, and that growth will be felt in Qatar. Potentially, six of their starting line-up would have been in Russia – Youssouf Sabaly, Kalilou Koulibaly, Mané, Gana Gueye, Ismaila Sarr, and Cheickou Kouyate.
Last Friday, the announcement of the squad going to Qatar dominated Senegalese media, with the press conference beamed live on Radiodiffusion Télévision Sénégalais, the national broadcaster.
But it was on private media that the coverage was more dramatic.
Télévision Futur Média (TFM) is owned by Youssour Ndour, the Senegalese music legend, and is the most influential private TV station in the country. They did a build-up, took the presser live, did a post-event analysis, and opened phone lines.
There was little critique of Aliou Cissé’s 26-man team for the World Cup. The Teranga Lions are at a point in their history where even kids can comfortably name the starting XI, and a bench of six of eight players. The chemistry has long been built, and has only ever needed smoothening or roughening with the addition and taking out of a few players.
For example, at the 2018 World Cup, Guinea-based Khadim N’Diaye was in goal. After that tournament came the form of Abdoullaye Diallo at Rennes as well as Alfred Gomis at Spal and, in particular, Edouard Mendy. They became so strong in the position that an injury to Mendy that sidelined him during Afcon 2019 was not enough from stopping Gomis from powering them to the final.
In truth, the positional headaches Cissé has are few. The toughest call, however, will be how to fashion the team in the possible absence of Mané.
It is unclear how long Mane will need to make a full recovery and, unlike the other four African teams heading to Qatar, Senegal will not play a friendly before their first game. A tune-up match would have helped assess options, particularly on the left side of attack.
Saliou Ciss, whose left-sided partnership with Sadio at this year’s Afcon was so devastating,
could not be selected because he does not have a club presently. “It is not only that Sadio is very good, but if you drop him, the lack of his presence cannot be quantified,” Donette Thiam, a producer TFM says.
Koln-born left-back, Ismail Jakobs, has had two caps, both in September, and they were enough to get a seat on the plane to Doha. His main competition will be French-born AC Milan defender Fodé Ballo-Touré, who is more used to the coach’s system.
The Teranga Lions will have to start thinking of the realities regarding Mane. Boulaye Dia, Sarr, and Krepin Diatta, are not bad replacements, while Marseille’s Bamba Dieng and Villareal’s Nicolas Jackson can do well, although they will not have that magnetic aura of Mane.
Jackson, in particular, is an intriguing prospect because, for someone who is yet to be capped, there is quite an excitement back home about how he fares on the wings. A front three of Sarr – Dia – Jackson is not impossible. This, curiously, could be Dia’s moment where he shakes off the reputation of being Sadio’s sidekick. Since joining the team in 2020, he has been content with allowing Mane hog the headlines, in much the same way that Karim Benzema did for Cristiano Ronaldo in their Real Madrid days.
No matter what formation the coach goes with, what’s certain is that the team will not be short of striking options, if even inspiration could be a bit dampened.
The overwhelming prediction that Senegal will be Africa’s best team in Qatar is not without merit. Yet, their performances leading to the tournament have been less than convincing. For a team tipped by many to make the quarterfinals, Senegal have not purred in games following their Afcon title win.
What matters is that they seem to know how to win and that may be all that counts in a group also having the Ecuador and host nation, Qatar.
Goalkeepers: Edouard Mendy, Alfred Gomis and Seny Dieng.
Defenders: Kalidou Koulibalu, Abdou Diallo, Youssouf Sabaly, Fode Ballo Toure, Pape Abou Cisse, Ismail Jakobs and Formose Mendy.
Midifielders: Gana Guegye, Cheikhou Kouyate, Nampalys Mendy, Krepin Diatta, Pape Gueye, Pape Matar Sarr, Pathe Ciss, Moustapha Name and Loum Ndiaye.
Forwards:Sadio Mané, Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia, Bamba Dieng, Famara Diedhiou, Nicolas Jackson and Iliman Ndiaye. — SuperSport