Africa’s Best Hope For Glory Lies With Sadio Mané’s Senegal
12:00 PM EDT on October 31, 2022
It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.
Senegal disappointed at the 2018 World Cup, failing to make the knockout rounds despite being placed in a relatively soft group. A draw in their final game against Colombia would have secured advancement to the knockout stages, but they lost that game 1–0 and ended up level on points with Japan, who had an identical goal difference as Senegal but were allowed to advance an account of having been awarded fewer yellow cards. What a way to see a World Cup run come to an end. Yuck.
Things have been better since then, though. Senegal is still by no means a world soccer powerhouse, nor are they likely to be anyone's pick to make it to the World Cup final, but this is a team that has every right to be brimming with confidence when the action finally kicks off next month. All this team has done recently is win big games. A two-time runner-up at the Africa Cup of Nations, Senegal finally became the best team in Africa by winning that tournament in 2021. The final against Egypt came down to a penalty shootout, and it was national hero Sadio Mané who scored the deciding spot kick.
Just a few weeks later, Senegal found itself in another nervy scrap with Egypt, this time with qualification for the 2022 World Cup on the line. After losing 1–0 in the first leg of the qualification playoff, Senegal went ahead 1–0 early in the second leg and held onto the lead long enough to force yet another penalty shootout. See if you can guess who stepped up with the deciding kick:
The squad Senegal is taking into the 2022 World Cup won't be that different from the one they had in 2018, which some might count as a cause for concern given that soccer players tend to get worse as they age. But why not spin the team's maturation as a positive? Is this a team whose key players are teetering on the edge of their primes, or is it one full of experienced, hardened players who have proven themselves capable of going into do-or-die competitions and coming out the other side unscathed? Let's be positive here!
Who Is Their Main Guy?
The main guy is Sadio Mané, obviously. At this point even the most casual soccer fan should be well aware of what Mané can do. He's basically everything you could ask for in a modern forward—a player who never tires, presses from the front, can run through or around any defender, plays any position on the forward line, and scores every type of goal at a high frequency.
When Mané arrived at the 2018 World Cup, he was two years into his tenure at Liverpool and just beginning to make his case as being one of the best players in the world. That ascension took off in earnest after Mané returned from the World Cup. He scored 22 league goals in the 2018–19 Premier League season and also helped Liverpool claim a Champions League title; he followed that up by scoring 18 league goals the next season and leading Liverpool to a long-awaited Premier League title. For a good chunk of time there, Mané was one of the very best players on one of the very best teams in the world, which is a status rarely achieved by even the most gifted players.
Mané is 30 years old now and playing for Bayern Munich, which is a way of saying that the denouement of his career has already begun. He'll sleepwalk to a few more league titles at Bayern, have a chance to compete for a few more Champions League trophies, and otherwise enjoy the comforts of playing on a team that has no peer at the domestic level. This is all great news for Senegal, as his new life in Germany should have him physically fresher and more mentally focused on the World Cup. If Mané is the type of player to care about things like legacy, then he should see what the rest of us see for him on the horizon: a real shot at immortality.
Mané has won at the highest levels of the sport: the Premier League, the Champions League, and most recently the Africa Cup of Nations. The last big competition in which he has yet to make mark is the World Cup. This may not be his last appearance in the tournament, but it certainly will be the last World Cup he'll play in while still in full possession of the skills needed to carry a team into the knockout stages and beyond. Mané is not in the same position as, say, Lionel Messi, who has to win the whole damn tournament in order to put that final coat of gloss on his legacy, but a run into the quarter- or semifinals, accompanied by a few sparkling goals, could go a long way towards determining how Mané eventually gets sorted among the best African players in history. All of which is to say that Mané, if he cares about any of that stuff, should be coming into the World Cup as hungry and motivated as anyone. Let's hope that's the case, because a motivated Sadio Mané is one of the best spectacles the sport has to offer.
Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?
That would be Kalidou Koulibaly, the 31-year-old center back who sits at the heart of Senegal's defense. You'll often hear soccer pundits talk about how important it is for a team to have a "strong spine," and what they mostly mean when they say that is that life is a lot easier when you have a center back like Koulibaly.
If Koulibaly is lesser known than some of the sport's other elite defenders, it is only due to the fact that he has spent most of his club career playing for Napoli, a perennially good Serie A squad that is nevertheless a rung or two below Europe's superpowers. Koulibaly spent eight seasons at Napoli, establishing himself as a dominant defender who always seemed to be right on the cusp of a big-money move to Spain or England. In some alternate universe, Koulibaly spent the last five seasons anchoring the back line for Barcelona or Manchester City, but in this one he remained at Napoli throughout his prime, until this past summer when Chelsea finally swooped in and plucked him away for £33 million.
Koulibaly's only played in eight games for Chelsea so far this season, but even in that short time Premier League fans have gotten a good look at everything that made him such a highly rated player for so long. He's huge, for one thing, standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 194 pounds, but he's more than just a defensive rock. He's a fantastic ball-striker and passer, which are prized attributes in Chelsea's back-three system that emphasizes the need for defenders who can play out of from the back and initiate attacks. Koulibaly has far fewer opportunities to showcase his ball-playing skills when he's with Senegal, but he still ticks every other box you want a defender to tick. Whether Senegal is able to go deep in this tournament will greatly depend on how many games Koulibaly is able to dominate from the back line.
Where’s The Beef?
Which teams or players does Senegal not like? Do Senegal's players like each other? We investigate Senegal's potential enemies.
If you have found yourself nodding along to the information that has been presented to you so far in this preview and begun thinking that Senegal might be a cool and fun team to root for this year, well then you are probably going to be bummed about what comes next.
Aside from their recent success in the Africa Cup of Nations, the big storyline that has hovered over the Senegalese team has centered around trying to figure out exactly how homophobic some of its players are. This question first popped up last year, when midfielder Idrissa Gueye, playing at PSG at the time, missed a game in which PSG's players were asked to wear jerseys with rainbow numbers, as a demonstration of support for the LGBTQ+ community. All PSG said at the time was that Gueye, a practicing Muslim, was withdrawn from the match for "personal reasons," and Gueye himself has yet to comment on why exactly he wasn't with his team that day.
Plenty of others have commented, though. Senegal's president, Macky Sall, sent a tweet in support of Gueye: "I support Idrissa Gana Gueye. His religious convictions must be respected." Former prime minister Abdoul Mbaye also threw his support behind Gueye, saying, confusingly, "He is not homophobic. He does not want his image to be used to promote homosexuality. Leave him alone."
It wasn't just politicians who came to Gueye's defense, either. Many of his teammates on the Senegalese squad, including Cheikhou Kouyaté and Ismaïla Sarr, both of whom play in England, tweeted out statements of support, appending the hashtag #WeAreAllIdrissa.
Don't expect Gueye or any of the other Senegalese players to receive much backlash at the World Cup, because homosexuality is outlawed in Qatar. What a cool host country FIFA has chosen for us.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Senegal's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
This category was basically made for Ismaïla Sarr. He meets every prerequisite for going David Ospina or James Rodríguez Mode: he's relatively young (24 years old), he's relatively good (he scores goals and can play any forward position), and he plays for a sorry-ass team that would be more than happy to sell him for a decent price (Watford). More important than all of that, however, is that Sarr can be a visually captivating player, which is an important ingredient in anyone's quest to go David Ospina or James Rodríguez Mode.
Sarr is tall and fast, and when he's in good form it's not hard to convince yourself that he's the best player on the field. That's almost never the case, of course, but when you see those long legs of his get to churning, and then you see him body a defender out of his path, and then you see him snipe a low and hard shot past the keeper, it's hard not to conclude that you are watching a Real Hooper, one deserving of a bigger stage, at work.
As things stand right now, it's basically a foregone conclusion that Watford will sell Sarr to some mid-table Premier League team like West Ham or Everton for £25-30 million at some point in the next nine months. But if he scores three or four goals in the World Cup and starts to look like a potential star? Well then we might end up with some big team like Chelsea splashing £50 million after deciding that Sarr is the next overpriced forward that they need to add to the roster.
David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 107.2
James Rodríguez Mode Probability Score: 47.3
Fun Geographical Fact
Senegal has a pink lake.
This curious body of water is called Lac Rose, and it is located near the Senegalese coast, about 18 miles away from the capital city of Dakar. The lake is often pink because of the presence of Dunaliella salina, a type of algae that produces a reddish pigment that helps to absorb sunlight. The lake is also extremely salty, due to how near it is to the ocean and the high salt content in Dunaliella salina. That means you can float in it!
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
Very good flag. Simple, understated, but with fun colors.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
This one is good as hell, in my opinion, and not just because it's short. That little string-forward interlude in the middle is lovely.
Notable Moment In World Cup History
The Lions of Teranga have spent the past two decades trying to recreate the glory of 2002, when they qualified for the World Cup for the first time, went all the way to the quarterfinals, and defeated reigning world champions France along the way.
That win over France is one of those games that stands out as a reminder of why so many people love the World Cup. You had a group of underdogs taking on a team representing Senegal's former colonizers, a shocking and hilarious goal 30 minutes in to put the underdogs up 1–0, and then 60 more nerve-shredding minutes in which Senegal weathered increasingly desperate attacks from the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet. I get stressed out just watching the highlights.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
If the team's stars all play at an extremely high level, then a run beyond the knockout stages is within the realm of possibility. Getting from that point all the way to the final will be a tougher nut to crack, but that is where Senegal's secret weapon comes into play.
That's Ailou Cisse, Senegal's coach and the handsomest manager in the tournament. If the TV executives are smart, they'll find a way to rig the tournament so that this guy is on the touchline and being broadcast in high definition to the entire world during the biggest game.