Taking senegalese soccer to new heights, with pride and style
By Elian Peltier and Mady Camara
Standing on the sidelines of Senegal’s brand-new national stadium, Aliou Cissé, the biggest fan of his own team, waved his arms at 50,000 fans, exhorting them to cheer even louder, his signature dreadlocks bouncing on his shoulders.
Fans roared back, clapping and blowing their vuvuzelas at a more deafening pitch. Minutes later, Senegal defeated its fiercest rival, Egypt, earning a qualification for soccer’s World Cup, which begins this November in Qatar.
“When we are together, Senegal wins,” a grinning Cissé, 46, said at a postgame news conference. Or, as he likes to repeat in Wolof, one of the country’s national languages, “Mboloo Mooy gagner” — “Unity brings victory.”
If Senegal feels proud and patriotic these days, it’s thanks in large part to its national team — and to Cissé, a former professional player who has reinvented Senegalese soccer and built what is currently the best team in Africa.
“The barometer of the Senegalese society today is soccer,” Cissé said in a recent interview with The New York Times in Diamniadio, a newly built city on the outskirts of Dakar where the new stadium sits. “People watch us play and they’re proud to be Senegalese, proud to be African.”
Cissé led the squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, the country’s first soccer title. In doing so, he proved to the Senegalese people that one of their own could succeed where no one else had.
European managers have long coached many African national teams, including Senegal’s, but that is changing, a shift embodied by Cissé.
Born in the southern Senegalese region of Casamance in 1976, Cissé moved to France when he was 9 and grew up in the suburbs of Paris, one of the world’s best pools of soccer talent.
His trajectory is similar to many African players who were raised in Europe or joined youth academies there. “When I was out, I was French, but at home I was truly Senegalese,” Cissé said about speaking Wolof and following the family’s customs while in France.
Cissé joined the youth academy of Lille, in northern France, at 14, and played in French and English clubs in the 1990s and 2000s, including the French powerhouse Paris St.-Germain, Portsmouth and Birmingham City, which competed in England’s top league.
At the 2002 World Cup, he captained a Senegalese squad participating in its first World Cup — one that stunned France, the world champions at the time, in a surprise victory that many still refer to with warm nostalgia. Senegal reached the quarterfinals, the team’s biggest achievement to date in the competition.
As a coach, Cissé now appeals to both Senegalese players raised in their native country, and to those who moved to France in their youth like him, building a bridge between the squad’s “locals” and its “binationals,” as they are referred to among the team’s staff.
It has been a long road to success. When Cissé took over the team in 2015, Senegal had been performing poorly at the Africa Cup of Nations and had failed to qualify for the last three World Cup editions. Cissé’s predecessors were fired one after another.
Seven years later, Cissé, nicknamed “El Tactico,” for his efficient but restrained approach to the game, will bring Senegal to its third World Cup and his second one as a coach. The era when African teams were “observing,” is over, he says, and one will win the coveted trophy one day.
“Why not us?” he said.
Régis Bogaert, a former French youth coach of Cissé’s at Lille and now his deputy on the Senegalese team, said Cissé had conveyed a sense of mission to his players. “He is making many people want to be the next Aliou Cissé in Senegal and in Africa,” Bogaert said.
Soccer, a national passion, is everywhere in Senegal, whether in the youth academies nurturing future talents, or on Dakar’s beaches, empty construction sites and pitches dotting the city’s corniche along the Atlantic Ocean.
“To be the coach of the national team today is to be a politician,” said Cissé, who often repeats that he lives in Senegal and feels the country’s pressure on a daily basis, unlike his players or the foreign coaches who live abroad. “It’s about knowing the economy, the culture, the education and history of your country.”
His sense of humor and fashion tastes have also helped with his popularity: Cissé often wears shiny white sneakers and thick black square glasses, and he keeps his dreadlocks under a New York Yankees or Team Senegal cap, giving him the air of a cool father. He has five children, whom he makes sound as challenging to manage as the national team.
If Cissé has shared Senegal’s biggest successes, he has also experienced some of the country’s worst traumas. In 2002, he lost 11 relatives in a shipwreck that killed more than 1,800 passengers off the coasts of Senegal and Gambia.
Senegal’s victory at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year came 20 years after Cissé missed a penalty in the final of the same tournament, depriving the team of its first trophy back then — a memory that long haunted his nights, he said.
Since then, Senegal has been having happier days on the pitch, and the national pride surrounding the team was on full display last month when Senegal defeated Egypt in a penalty shootout in its first game in Diamniadio’s stadium.
Some fans said they had slept outside the stadium the night before to make sure they got the best seats. Hours before kickoff, thousands more lined up to enter, the sounds of whistles and drums filling the air.
“It’s a great day for Senegal,” said Sally Diassy, a French-Senegalese 30-year-old who lives in France and said she was visiting Senegal to support her favorite team.
The jubilation on display after the win echoed the triumphant return of the Senegalese players after they won the Africa Cup of Nations in February. Tens of thousands of fans greeted them as they paraded in the streets of Dakar. President Macky Sall rewarded the team and Cissé’s staff with some land in the capital and in Diamniadio, along with about $83,000, an exorbitant sum that set off some minor protests in a country where nearly half of the population lives under the poverty line.
But some players have also given back: Sadio Mané, the team’s star, has built a hospital in his native village. Kalidou Koulibaly, the captain, bought ambulances for his father’s village.
“Players want to be role models in their own country,” said Salif Diallo, a veteran soccer journalist who has followed Cissé’s career as a player and a coach. “This team is changing the perception that Senegalese have of themselves.”
Those who know Cissé say that once he is done with the national team, he will want to play a greater role for his country.
“I’ve tried to set an example,” Cissé said of his career as both player and coach. “If a Senegalese player moves to Birmingham or Montpelier or wherever I’ve played tomorrow, I hope he will be welcomed because they will remember that Aliou Cissé was a good guy.”