Senegal will draw on the spirit of the late Bruno Metsu, the maverick French coach who led them to the 2002 quarter-finals, when they face Poland on Tuesday in their first World Cup match in 16 years.
This will be the team’s first World Cup appearance since 2002 when captain Aliou Cisse’s side stunned defending champions France 1-0 in its opening game.
Metsu, whose side lost to a Turkish golden goal in the quarter-finals, died five years ago of cancer, aged 59.
“Today, my thoughts are with Bruno. I know that from where he is today he is watching us and his energy will lift us,” said Cisse, who is Senegal’s coach and also the only African coach at World Cup 2018.
The team’s qualification has been a cause of great celebration with the hopes that it will help develop football further in the country.
“They are not just representing Senegal. They’re playing for Africa,” Senegal fan Famara Dabo told Al Jazeera.
“We are a people of welcoming generosity, of pride, honour and glory. We are playing to win, to win the World Cup for the African continent.”
The team is not short on talent. Many of them play in leagues across Europe – Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Idrissa Gueye (Everton) and Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham United).
But most of them had humble beginnings, starting from sandy grounds instead of lush green outfields.
“its about playing a beautiful game. No bad intention, but just football, it’s a celebration. it’s about pleasure,” said 56-year-old footballer Baba Mathaus.
Cisse insisted his side were feeling confident and set on enjoying their return to the global stage, unfazed by talk of pressure after the three African countries to have played so far have failed to score or get a point.
No African team has bettered Senegal’s 2002 achievement, Cameroon, in 1990, and Ghana in 2010 also reached the quarters, but Cisse said he was sure that one would one day win the World Cup.
Captain Cheikhou Kouyate said Cisse had pushed them through particularly demanding training in the past month.
“The coach didn’t let up,” said Kouyate. “The coach has worked us like dogs.”
In Group H, they will also face Colombia and Japan.
With additional reporting by Nicolas Haque in Dakar, Senegal.