The last time Senegal played in a World Cup was in 2002. It was also their first time, and the debutants stunned everyone by first defeating defending champions France in the group stage and then going all the way to the quarterfinals. Now, it is the captain of that team who is leading the African charge at the 2018 World Cup.
With his long locks and rockstar demeanour, Senegal coach Aliou Cisse already had the tag of the 2018 World Cup's coolest coach. But after his side shocked Poland 2-1 in their opening group stage game, it is the master tactician in him that everybody is raving about. He is also the only black coach at this tournament.
As two small groups of Senegal fans sang, played instruments and danced for 90 minutes straight at the Spartak stadium, Cisse stood at the touchline, his eyes fixated on team. When he said something to his players during the game, they listened with rapt attention. The players have a sort of reverence for their manager.
In the mixed zone after the game, goalscorer Mbaye Niang, whose darting runs harassed the Polish defenders, was full of praise for the former Birmingham and Portsmouth midfielder. “He gives us a lot of confidence. To know that he is in control of the situation, no matter what, gives us a sense of calm,” Niang had said.
Senegal scored the first goal of the game, through a huge deflection off Polish defender Thiago Cionek, before doubling the lead after a mix-up that left Wojciech Szczesny stranded outside his box, allowing Niang to score. Despite Poland getting one back, Cisse gestured to his team to stay calm and made some crucial interventions in midfield.
The Senegalese midfielders started to play deep and hold off danger men Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, while Sadio Mane and Niang continued to find pockets of space to attack the Poland goal. At the full time whistle, Cisse celebrated with his players for achieving a famous victory that bolsters their hopes of advancing.
The 42-year-old, also one of the younger coaches, is the lowest paid manager at the World Cup 2018, earning 175,000 pounds, compared to 4 million that Joachim Loew gets. Senegal is the first African team to win a game at the tournament, with Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia all losing their opening games. That is why Cisse says that this victory is a win for Africa first, then for Senegal.
“We are Senegal but I can guarantee the whole of Africa is supporting the Senegal team,” he said after the game. “I get calls and lots of people are proud and we are proud to represent the African continent.... I hope Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia and Morcoco will stand up. There is a lot of quality in the other African teams.”
After the African Cup of Nations last year, he had said, “What we’re changing is the mindset. It’s not just about playing a pass or some technical skill, it’s about raising the whole level of African football. That’s our objective.” No African team has progressed past the quarterfinal stage at a World Cup.
Cisse was appointed head coach of the Senegal side in 2015, after his impressive work with the Senegal U-23 side. Though hot-headed in his playing days, he was a technically sound defensive midfielder. He is often lauded as a torch-bearer of an emerging generation of young African coaches. “Beyond being good players, we are very good in our tactics and have the right to be part of the top international matches,” he had said in an earlier interview.
Despite the plethora of attacking stars at his disposal, Cisse has been very calculative in his approach to tactics. He builds his team around a defensive style of play, with quick counter-attacking. His team doesn't have the best of passers—the Polish were much sharper in their passing—but the killer instinct that Cisse demands of his team was on full display, particularly in converting defence to attack.
After the game, Lewandowski complained that he was denied service from his teammates. But rather than the lack of service, it was the man-marking that Cisse had in place, that choked the mighty Lewandowski. As Cisse left the field, he looked at the press box, smiled and gave a thumbs-up to the Senegalese journalists who stood and clapped for their manager. “He is the man,” one of them said, with a wide grin.