There is a daily ritual on Senegal’s beaches that begins just as the sun starts to set at about 5pm. Roughly divided by age, hundreds of young men play football until it gets dark or the tides of the Atlantic Ocean wash away their pitches and the discarded tyres being used as impromptu goalposts.
It only takes a few minutes of watching the dazzling array of skills on show to understand why Teranga Lions have won Africa’s Beach Soccer Cup of Nations on seven of the past nine occasions, although it needed another penalty shootout victory over Egypt to claim their fourth successive title in October.
It is no accident that last season Senegal, with 51, was the African country with the highest number of players in the top five European leagues – a total that put them 10th on the global list. Thanks to the pathway provided by academies such as Dakar’s Génération Foot – which helped to produce Sadio Mané and Ismaïla Sarr because of its links with the French club Metz – a country with a population of 17 million continues to punch above its weight.
The president, Macky Sall, awarded every player in Senegal’s squad £64,000 and two plots of land for their shootout victory against Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations Cup final in February in recognition of their historic triumph. But Saer Seck, who set up the Diambars academy with the Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira in 2003, believes that achievement could be topped by beating England at the World Cup in Sunday’s last-16 showdown. “It would be an earthquake,” he says. “This a very big moment for the team and everyone is prepared to play the game of his life.”
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Diambars, situated in Saly on Senegal’s Petite Côte, is where Idrissa Gueye and Saliou Ciss began their careers before joining clubs in Europe. But with the team’s talisman Mané out of the tournament and the experienced defender Ciss not selected, Cheikhou Kouyaté sidelined by a hamstring injury sustained against the Netherlands and Gueye suspended, the coach, Aliou Cissé, will face England without four of the side that started against Egypt in Yaoundé.
“With Sadio it’s another story,” says Seck, a former vice-president of the Senegalese Football Association. “The team is no longer individuals because the strongest is not here, so we have to fight together to succeed. But each team has its own injuries so we can’t cry about that. Against England we will be missing four players due to injuries and suspensions and they all have a lot of experience. So it’s a different team but they will all be focused and ready to fight.”
In Qatar, Cissé has been happy to allow El Hadji Diouf – a teammate from the side that famously reached the last eight at the 2002 World Cup – to do most of the talking. The former Liverpool forward is Sall’s special adviser for sport as he targets becoming president of the Senegalese FA one day, although there is no doubt who calls the shots when it comes to the team.
“Aliou has proved he is an excellent coach with very strong and solid knowledge of the game,” says Seck. “He has been in football for more than 30 years and has been our manager since 2015. All his boys understand what he is telling them to do in preparation for the games. And this is enough to inspire them to follow him when they go on to the pitch. Having Aliou Cissé in charge of this team is one of our biggest strengths.”
Khalilou Fadiga, a former Bolton and Coventry winger and another member of the famous 2002 side who were defeated by Turkey after shocking the holders France in the opening match thanks to Papa Bouba Diop’s winner, is also in Qatar to add his experience to the Senegal party. But could the ice-cool Cissé, who captained that team before playing for Birmingham and Portsmouth in the Premier League, become the first African manager in the Premier League one day?
“If you had one clever president in the Premier League I think that he could be a very good manager,” says Seck. “I’ve been very close to him in the management of the national team for a long time so I know him very well and I’m sure he has the ability to lead a very good project in club football. And I know that Aliou Cissé is prepared to go there and make it.”
For now, Cissé has his sights set on making more history against England. After the victory in Seoul over their former colonial masters France 20 years ago Senegal’s then president, Abdoulaye Wade, declared a national holiday and Seck is adamant that overcoming Gareth Southgate’s side could have even more significance.
“This would be more historic because it would mean a place in the quarter-finals,” he says. “I think that England are the favourites but the game is not yet over. We are talking about football and, in football, faith is very important. Our team has faith, courage and we will fight. It won’t be easy for England – there’s definitely a quiet confidence about our team. Let’s see what happens but we will be ready to take our chance.”