Senegal’s Sadio Mané: From childhood rebel to football superstar

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  • Sadio Mané
    Sadio Mané
    Senegalese association football player

Liverpool winger Sadio Mané is one of the most lethal attackers playing today – a big draw for football fans as they tune in to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN), where he will act as Senegal’s playmaker. A crucial component in Mané’s meteoric rise was Génération Foot, a Senegalese club that has been central to making the national team a powerhouse of African football.

Sadio Mané became the first Senegalese player to win the Premier League in Liverpool’s astonishing 2019-20 title victory, as well as becoming the first Senegalese player to score in a Champions League final the previous year, and the first to score more than 100 Premiership goals. Can he become the first Senegal player to lift the CAN trophy?

As Senegal launches their CAN campaign against Zimbabwe on January 10 – hoping to realise their long-running potential, as most famously displayed in their victory over France in the 2002 World Cup – FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the illustrious career of their captain and star Mané.

During his childhood in rural southern Senegal, the 29-year-old Mané quickly developed a passion for football. But his father, a local imam, forbade him from playing. The young Mané ran away to the capital Dakar to try his luck there – an abortive attempt that ended with a pact between him and his mother: that he could play football as long as he continued his studies and remained a good Muslim.

At the age of 15, the budding footballer left home again – this time with the family’s blessing. A talent scout spotted him playing in a local football tournament in M’Bour, 80 kilometres southwest of the capital – and the scout ensured that Mané took tests in the capital.

“We were organising tests in Dakar and my colleague in M’Bour had brought back his four best players; Sadio Mané was one of them,” Jules Boucher, then a recruiter for Senegalese club Génération Foot, told FRANCE 24. “I set up two teams for a match and made Mané number 10; after fifteen minutes, he was the one who made the biggest impression on me. I stopped the game. I said to my colleague: If this kid gets good training, he’ll become a great player.”

All the qualities that strike football fans about Mané today were present back then: notably his ease with complex skills, his lacerating pace and incisive passing. It was Boucher who decided that these gifts would be best optimised by placing Mané on the left wing of the attack – a position he still plays at Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

From Metz to Liverpool

Génération Foot has played a substantial role in cultivating young Senegalese talent over the years. It was set up in 2000 by Mady Touré, who became an agent specialising in young African players after a playing career cut short by injury. Touré’s first big success was the cultivation of Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who transferred to Ligue 1’s Metz in 2001 for two years, before he joined Monaco and then captured the attention of football fans worldwide with his spells at Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham. Génération Foot’s links to Metz went on to be formative in developing this pipeline of Senegalese talent.

After FIFA instituted a regulation prohibiting the transfer of minors, Metz decided to “invest in infrastructure” and build a “real training centre to keep players until they reach 18”, the club’s president Bernard Serin told FRANCE 24.

Indeed, Metz developed a vast complex to serve as a training academy, including new grounds and even a boarding school.

Meanwhile Génération Foot was rapidly climbing up the ranks of Senegalese football after a lowly start in the third division – in large part thanks to its young talent. The youthful Mané was pivotal during his brief spell there, as Génération Foot won promotion to the second division. The club’s ascent then continued without him; it is now playing in Senegal’s first division, which it has won twice.

Mané instantly created an impression upon joining Metz in 2011.

“His potential became clear to us from the moment he arrived; I remember it perfectly – it was a match against Bastia in January, the way he cut through the defence and got a penalty,” Serin recalled. “It was extraordinary for someone just making his start in European professional football; all the qualities were there. He only played for us for a dozen matches or so but that was enough to get him called up for Senegal.”

Mané could have made Metz into a powerhouse of French football. But, alas, the club was relegated for the first time in their history that year. In a precarious financial position, they had to sell some of their best talent in order to keep afloat. The same year, they also sold Kalidou Koulibaly, now a renowned force as a Napoli centre-back and – along with Mané – the linchpin of the Senegal national team.

“It is a source of regret that we had to let them both go so soon; they could have really made the fans happy for a few years if we’d been able to keep them,” Serin said.

Austrian side RB Salzburg signed Mané for €4 million on the last day of the transfer window. The winger continued his remarkable ascent there – quickly establishing himself as a potent force, notching up 45 goals in 87 games, including three hat tricks. Mané finished the 2013-2014 season as the club’s top scorer, with 15 goals in all competitions.

Mané won the attention of football fans across the globe when he joined England’s Premier League – the most demanding in the world – signing for Southampton in 2014. The South Coast club had established itself as an increasingly potent force in English football; a reservoir of talent to be snapped up by elite clubs for hefty prices.

As Mané went from strength to strength in the bright lights of the Premiership – as attested by his 21 goals in 67 appearances for Southampton – he attracted the attention of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

Determined to make this storied club into England’s dominant footballing force once again, Klopp stumped up €36 million for Mané in the 2016 summer transfer window. Soon the medals started coming in, as Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019 and the long-coveted Premier League title the subsequent year.

Pride in Senegal

Mané’s performances for Senegal didn’t slip as Liverpool flourished – as his national team surged to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final. Senegal lost to Algeria, but Mané could console himself with 3 goals and an assist in 6 games at CAN – not to mention being crowned 2019 African Footballer of the Year, ahead of his Liverpool teammate Mo Salah. Yet Mané has not hidden his desire to lift the CAN trophy for Senegal.

Mané has always shown pride in his Senegalese roots – as demonstrated by his paying for an extension to his former secondary school, his sending 300 Liverpool shirts to his hometown after the Reds lost the 2018 Champions League final to Real Madrid, and his regular trips back to visit Génération Foot, where one of the player housing buildings bears his name.

The partnership between Génération Foot and France’s Metz continues to flourish – having recently cultivated talents like Watford’s Ismail Sarr and Tottenham’s Pape Matar Sarr. Despite the emergence of other Senegalese talent like Dakar Sacré-Coeur and Diambars (both partners of Marseille), Génération Foot remains one step ahead.

“The partnership between Génération Foot and Metz facilitated an improvement in the quality of Senegalese football,” Salif Diallo, head of sports at the Senegalese Press Agency, told FRANCE 24. “Génération Foot is the backbone of Senegalese teams – and that is true of the coming generation as well.”

If Senegal can realise its dream and lift this year’s CAN trophy, Génération Foot will be able to claim much of the credit.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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