There are moments when the success of a sports team can transfix a nation. Such moments provide respite from difficult circumstances and can offer a sense of hope that permeates people’s everyday lives. Senegal winning its first-ever Africa Cup of Nations yesterday in Cameroon is such a moment.
Senegal is a country where soccer is everywhere. Take a walk along the beaches of Dakar, the capital city, and you will likely find a group of people playing. If it is low tide and the shore is dry, sand will spit up behind players’ feet as they chase the ball, and everyone’s legs will be freckled in brown grains. If it is high tide and the beach is wet, the surface will be firmer, but they’ll be playing as much against the waves lapping on the shore as against the players on the other team.
I lived in Dakar in 2009, and played soccer on the beach almost every day. I had played the game since the age of 5 and had fallen in love with the feeling of the ball at my feet. But on the beaches of Senegal, I learned to love the possibilities of the game in a new way—I reveled in the country’s collective passion for the sport, the levity with which the game was approached, and the way that these pickup games on the beach served as the catalyst for community and conversations with people I otherwise might never have gotten to know.
I was thinking about my time in Dakar this weekend—and all the children wearing the jersey of their favorite Senegalese player—when Senegal took on Egypt in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s prestigious biennial tournament, held this year in the West African nation of Cameroon.
The final of this year’s competition—postponed six months because of the pandemic—featured the two best African players in the world, Sadio Mané of Senegal and Mohamed Salah of Egypt. What made the matchup even more intriguing is that the two of them are teammates for Liverpool Football Club, in England’s Premier League. But Mané and Salah are not simply the two best African footballers in the world; they are two of the best players in the world, period. For years now, they have made Liverpool one of the most explosive attacking teams in world football (often making a mockery of my beloved team in the process).
Attempting to describe what it is like to see Salah and Mané play on the same team is like trying to describe the northern lights to someone who hasn’t seen them before. You can describe the colors, or the shapes of the bending arcs of kaleidoscopic light, or the way it looks like the sky is breaking open in the most beautiful way—but until someone sees it for themselves, they won’t really understand. So watching the two of them on opposing teams, carrying the dreams of their respective countries on their back, promised to be a dynamic encounter.
The two teams entered the game with quite different track records in the competition. Egypt is the most successful team in the Africa Cup of Nations’ history, having lifted the champions’ trophy seven times. Senegal, by contrast, had never won.
Despite the nation’s passion for the sport and the omnipresence of the game on its beaches, in its alleyways, and on its streets, Senegal has not been able to establish a consistent habit of winning on big occasions. In addition to never having won the Africa Cup of Nations, the country has qualified for the World Cup only twice (though it had a memorable run to the quarterfinals in 2002, when it defeated the reigning world champion and Senegal’s former colonizer, France).
This year, however, felt different. The team was anchored not only by Mané but also by the Chelsea F.C. goalkeeper Édouard Mendy—recently named the top goalkeeper in the world by FIFA—and by its captain, the Napoli center-back Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the best defenders in the world. Its coach, Aliou Cissé, was the captain of the 2002 World Cup team, and his presence at the helm of Senegal’s team has taken on added symbolic importance given that, for years, many African teams have brought in white European head coaches. Senegal, instead, has put faith in a local coach and national hero.
From the final’s start, Senegal largely dominated, creating multiple scoring opportunities for long periods of the game. Egypt looked exhausted, having had each of its prior three matches go into extra time. Still, Senegal couldn’t seem to do enough to get the ball in the back of the net, including a missed penalty by Mané just six minutes into the game.
Despite Senegal’s consistent advantage, the match went into penalties after a goalless 120 minutes. Each team made its first attempt, but in the second round of penalties, Egypt’s Mohamed Abdelmonem’s shot hit the post and the ball bounced wide, handing the advantage to Senegal. But Egypt’s goalkeeper, Mohamed Abou Gabal, subsequently blocked Bouna Sarr’s effort, putting the teams on level terms again. It was then Mendy, Senegal’s goalkeeper, who stopped Mohanad Lasheen’s shot in the fourth round of penalties, which opened up the opportunity for Sadio Mané to win the game for his country. Despite having missed the penalty earlier in the match, Mané stepped up to take Senegal’s fifth and final penalty, and emphatically ripped the ball past Abou Gabal to give Senegal its first-ever Africa Cup of Nations title.
The victory was celebrated deliriously in the streets of Dakar, Paris, and “Little Senegal” in Harlem. The Senegalese president, Macky Sall, declared today a national public holiday so that everyone in the country could celebrate the team’s victory. Thousands of people showed up at the airport to greet their national heroes.
The win comes at an important time for Senegal, which has struggled in recent years with political unrest and an economy—deeply reliant on tourism—that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Egypt and Senegal will meet again next month as they battle for one of Africa’s five spots in the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar. The nature of Africa’s head-to-head playoff system means that only one of them will qualify. But today, most Senegalese people across the world aren’t focused on any games in the future; they’re focused only on the euphoria of yesterday’s victory. And I have no doubt that today there are soccer games happening on beaches across the Senegalese coast, with young kids who are hoping they might be the next Sadio Mané.