Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Africa Cup of Nations: Sadio Mane, inspired by 2002 heroes, on the cusp of Senegal football history

As Senegal seek their first piece of major silverware, all eyes will be on the Liverpool superstar to deliver

Sadio Mane, centre, has the chance to create Senegalese football history when he leads his national team into the Africa Cup of Nations final. Reuters
Sadio Mane, centre, has the chance to create Senegalese football history when he leads his national team into the Africa Cup of Nations final. Reuters

It may well have been the fastest sprint of Sadio Mane’s nascent career.

He was 10 years old, it was the last day of his school term and the young students in the village of Bambali, in southern Senegal, had been granted some hours off. But haste still had to be made. Mane had an appointment he was determined not to miss.

Kick-off was scheduled for 11.30am local time, which was half past eight in the evening in Seoul, Korea, where the 2002 World Cup was about to begin, with Senegal, tournament debutants, meeting France, the champions.

Mane dashed out of his class, handed his school bag to a younger brother to take home and sped to the spot where there was a television, black and white, with a crowd gathering around it.

He was spellbound, and reckons even now he could accurately narrate every detail of that game, a sensational one from the moment Papa Bouba Diop gave the underdogs the lead and Senegal’s Lions then defended their 1-0 advantage with impressive assurance for the remaining hour.

“Watching that,” Mane recently told France Football, “made me absolutely determined that one day I would do what that team did.”

That 2002 Senegal squad made history, went on to the quarter-finals of the Korea-Japan World Cup, as far as any African country has achieved at football’s greatest showpiece.

Mane, who with Liverpool last month became the first Senegalese to win a European Cup - club football’s most prestigious title, is not unique for taking inspiration from the 2002 Lions. But perhaps he more than any of his contemporaries feels the shadow of their achievements.

Mane spearheaded Senegal’s attack at what was the country’s second adventure at a World Cup, a year ago. That campaign made history, but for unhappy reasons, elimination at the group stage thanks to the first use of the tiebreaker that separated teams on a count-back of yellow cards, Japan the beneficiaries, Senegal the losers.

The previous year, another tiebreaker, another heartbreaker: Mane’s Senegal were beaten via penalty shoot-out by Cameroon in the quarter-finals at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Nine of the spot-kicks were scored, only Mane’s was saved.

To call the current Lions ‘Mane’s Senegal’ is to ratchet up the burden on the standout superstar, but they are often referred to as that, even if, as they prepare for the country’s second Africa Cup of Nations final on Friday in Cairo, they have a broad spread of worldly, high-class talent.

Sadio Mane after missing his crucial penalty against Cameroon at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Getty Images
Sadio Mane after missing his crucial penalty against Cameroon at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Getty Images

A nation looks to Mane for leadership and a team tactically inclined to build around their physical strength looks to Mane to supply the dazzle, the clever run, the telling pass, the composed finish.

And Senegal are entitled to recognise Mane as their likeliest matchwinner, especially after a season when he scored as many Premier League goals as anybody, and alarmed defences across Europe as much as any Liverpool striker.

Mane has scored three times so far at this Afcon. It might have been five had he not failed to convert two of the three penalties he has taken. If his goal against Kenya in the group phase showed off many of his best qualities - the muscular force he can impose in a duel, the tearaway sprint and the dead-calm finish - he has not been consistently dynamic. The tense, crackling semi-final against Tunisia sometimes seemed to pass him by.

When that happens, a pressure builds. “You hear people saying he doesn’t play at the same level for Senegal as for Liverpool,” says Habib Beye, a defender in the the feted 2002 team, and now a television pundit, “and he's also a quiet guy. His sort of leadership is technical rather than about haranguing teammates.”

Sadio Mane, right, and Mohamed Salah, left, were joint-top scorers in the Premier League last season, alongside Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Reuters
Sadio Mane, right, and Mohamed Salah, left, were joint-top scorers in the Premier League last season, alongside Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Reuters

Quiet never means indifferent. Any doubt about the emotional investment ought to have been cleared up by the tears Mane broke into after the 1-0 win against Equatorial Guinea in the penultimate Afcon qualifier last November.

They were a symptom, it was reported by those close to Mane, of the criticism that had accumulated over a period of nearly four years without his scoring an international goal in front of home fans.

Mane’s leadership, technical or otherwise, will be required against Algeria on Friday. With Kalidou Koulibaly, chief marshall of Senegal’s defence, suspended, the senior players take on greater responsibilities.

They know the greats of the past will be watching. The iconic side of Bouba Diop and company reached Senegal’s only other Afcon final, a few months before they conquered France in Korea. They lost it on penalties.

This is the chance for Generation Mane to eclipse their heroes, and if the Liverpool legend makes it his night, the faint whisper about Mane's candidacy for the 2019 Ballon D’Or will become, at least, a sustained murmur.

Updated: July 16, 2019 03:13 PM

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