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Are Senegal ‘Africa’s best hope’ at World Cup 2022?

This World Cup will be the third that the Teranga Lions have qualified for, and their first as reigning African champions.

Senegal football
Senegal players pose for a team photo before their World Cup qualifying match in Cairo [File: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Previous World Cup appearances: 2002, 2018
Titles: 0
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2002)
World Cup record: W3 L2 D3
World Cup goals: 11
Biggest win: 1-0 v France (2002)
Player to watch: Sadio Mane
Ranking: 18
Group stage fixtures: Netherlands (November 21), Qatar (November 25), Ecuador (November 29)

Of Africa’s five representatives at the 2022 World Cup, Senegal are the least experienced.

This World Cup will be the third that the Teranga Lions have qualified for, and their first as reigning African champions.

In spite of this, the West African nation occupies a relatively unique position. Only three teams from the continent have reached the last-eight at a World Cup, but Senegal reached that milestone in their first-ever appearance.

Senegal World Cup 2002
Senegal before their World Cup quarter-final against Turkey in Osaka on June 22, 2002 [Fatih Saribas/Reuters]

In 2002, they stunned reigning world and European champions France and scored in every game but one en route to a quarter-final finish.

Despite that rousing success, Senegal missed out on the following three editions and 2022 marks their first-ever qualification for consecutive World Cups.

Disappointment in 2018

Aliou Cisse, captain of their great adventure in 2002 and in the dugout for seven years now, will lead the Teranga Lions in a bid to put the disappointment of 2018 behind them.

In Russia, Senegal became the first team ever to be eliminated from the World Cup on the basis of fair play, a cruel blow that defender Kalidou Koulibaly believes they have learned from.

“We will not make the same mistake again,” the Chelsea centre-back told Al Jazeera.

“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.”

Senegal fans
Senegal fans before their nation’s game against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia [Max Rossi/Reuters]

‘Africa’s best hope’

They will also have the boost of coming in as African champions. Senegal took a while to assert themselves during the Africa Cup of Nations in January, making heavy weather of a group that featured Malawi and Zimbabwe.

However, they came into their own during the knockout rounds, and although they needed a penalty shootout in the final to prove it, the Lions were deserving winners.

In addition to being Senegal’s first-ever taste of silverware, that achievement lent legitimacy to their current generation, as well as to Cisse’s work. And it cemented their standing as the continent’s best hope of a deep run in Qatar.

“I think Senegal offer Africa’s best hope,” African football expert Mark Gleeson told Al Jazeera. “I hope that they can get to the quarters, but it depends who they have to play, of course, in the round of 16. I do see them going through, and I think they’ll be the only African side to do so.”

That expectation is enhanced by the draw.

The Netherlands will provide a thorny challenge in the opening game, but the rest of Group A is made up of hosts Qatar, in their maiden World Cup appearance, and South America’s last automatic qualifier, Ecuador.

On the strength of both the FIFA rankings and the relative quality of their squad, Senegal are favourites to advance.

liverpool napoli
Koulibaly and Van Dijk have played against each other in The Champions League and will soon face each other in the Premier League after Koulibaly moved from Napoli to Chelsea in the summer [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

“It’s going to be very difficult but it’s an open group,” Koulibaly admitted.

“Qatar (are) playing at home, the Netherlands are a great football nation – they have big players like Van Dijk, I played a lot against him – and Ecuador proved that they deserved to be here.”

Two-time African footballer of the year and Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane is undoubtedly the Teranga Lions’ biggest star.

But in Edouard Mendy, Idrissa Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Ismaila Sarr, Abdou Diallo and Boulaye Dia they have players who have established themselves in Europe.

sadio mane
Sadio Mane in action during the Africa Cup of Nations final between Senegal and Egypt at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, on February 6, 2022 [Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters]

High expectations

Since their title-winning effort in Cameroon, Senegal’s results have been underwhelming.

They came through a two-legged playoff against Egypt, but only on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate score, and they followed that up with a 3-1 win over 10-man Benin and a slim triumph – via a 98th-minute penalty – against Rwanda.

Results in pre-World Cup friendlies have also raised some concern. A routine win over Bolivia was followed by a 1-1 draw with Iran, in which Senegal appeared to lack imagination in attack.

That feeds into a wider concern. When Mane is shackled, it is often difficult to tell where the chances are coming from.

In spite of those recent wobbles, Koulibaly remains bullish about Senegal’s prospects in Qatar, and says the team have their eyes set on pushing the envelope at the World Cup.

“I don’t know about the other African teams but as captain of Senegal we are not going there to reach the normal ceiling of Africa, which is the quarter-finals,” he declared.

“I believe we can compete for the trophy like the other countries from different continents. We have no business at the World Cup if the plan is just to participate and go home after the group. That is such a defeatist mentality. If you go to battle thinking you are not good enough then you’ve already lost.

“Senegal is going to Qatar with the ambition to win and that is our mentality.”

Source: Al Jazeera