CAPE TOWN - If you remember Senegal at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, then you’ll remember Aliou Cisse. The west Africans upset champions France in the opening game and then surged on to reach the quarter-finals; Cisse was an influential member and the captain of that team.
Now as Senegal coach, he is bringing that same energy and vibrancy to the team, but also ensuring they are a lot more tactically adept and disciplined. Senegal made the entire continent proud with a superb win over a highly-rated Poland side on Tuesday, but it wasn’t just so much the victory, it was the intelligent manner in which they tactically controlled the game.
It is often said a major downfall of African countries at the World Cup is that they tend to be led by their emotions and in the process, through a lack of focus, things tend to fall apart. Not so with Senegal: they were disciplined throughout, they kept it tight and compact and never allowed the Poles to play through the lines. While Poland had ball possession, they were never able to do anything because of the shape and organisation of the Senegalese. And then, importantly, when Senegal gained possession, they were able to put the opposition under pressure with their athleticism, pace and power on the ball.
There are those who may say Senegal were a touch lucky - an own goal and a disputed second goal because of a referee decision - but anyone who has played this game before knows that in football, you make your own luck. This is a sport that rewards hard work and based on Senegal’s performance, there is no doubt the win was fully deserved.
For Cisse it was a tremendous triumph but more than that, it was just as significant for the symbolic message sent out by the 42-year-old’s success: As the youngest coach and the only black coach among the 32 at Russia 2018, Cisse confirmed the quality, acumen and all-round game suss of a new generation of emerging black coaches. Ignore their rise and ability at your own peril.
As for hosts Russia, their performances have surely been inspired by a nation rallying behind the team. In football the crowd, the country, becomes the team’s 12th man. At the World Cup, it has, except for one occasion, always been this way. For example, South Korea made it to the semi-finals when they co-hosted in 2002, Mexico the quarter-finals in 1986, while France, England and Argentina were champions on home soil. The odd one out is South Africa in 2010, with Bafana Bafana the only country to crash out in the group stage as hosts.
Russia, after two victories, will surely advance to the next round and importantly, it will be the first time they’ve done so since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Home advantage, indeed. We are, after all, but human. It’s important to focus on that before aiming any unwarranted criticism at the subdued performance of Egypt’s Mo Salah in the defeat to Russia on Tuesday. No doubt he is still feeling the effects of the shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final.
After a fine season for Liverpool, together with his cult status in the north African country, the charismatic attacker’s fitness was critical for Egypt. But as it turned out, he had to be rushed back to add some presence to the team, especially after their opening defeat to Uruguay, but it was clear he wasn’t ready.