Sunday, February 6th, 2022 will forever be a day etched in the history of Senegal. The Lions of Teranga, the Senegal national men’s football team lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy for the first time. After coming close in two finals in 2002 and 2019, Senegal finally rose to the occasion in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and beat Egypt in a tense final.
From the beginning of the tournament, two of the most prominent players present were Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, teammates at Liverpool Football Club. Sadio Mane had jokingly predicted that he would meet one of his Liverpool teammates in the final and that his team would win 1-0. Football, known as soccer to American audiences, is an unpredictable sport but Mane almost got it right. Indeed, he met his fellow club attacker Salah in the final game of the competition. If the final result of the game is anything to go by, Mane would have been right in prophesying that his team would win 1-0. With less than 10 minutes of the game played Mane won a penalty for his team. At that moment, Salah rushed to the Egyptian goalkeeper, Gabal, whispering to him and perhaps telling him in which direction Mane would hit his penalty. Mane approached the Egyptian goalkeeper as well, whispering words of his own, perhaps hoping to plant confusion in Gabal’s head. Mane went on to miss the penalty with Gabal making a solid save. His prediction, as well as a chance to put his team in the lead, had been foiled. During the rest of the game, Senegal dominated proceedings appearing to be the sharper of the opponents. They created dangerous situations but simply failed to put that finishing touch to their ambitions. Salah, who has been spoken of as one the best players in the world, showed a few flashes of brilliance during the game but they proved too few and not effective enough. Senegal was the dominant team throughout the game and while it is never a good feeling to lose any game, Egypt cannot begrudge the eventual champions their victory. The game remained a stalemate for 90 minutes. It went into extra time for another 30 minutes and still, neither of the teams could score. This meant that the final would be decided on penalties. Mane scored the decisive penalty, sealing a historic victory for Senegal.
Dakar, the capital of Senegal, erupted with joy after Mane’s penalty hit the back of the net. The players of the national team received a hero’s welcome when they landed in their country with their President, Macky Sall, and thousands waiting to shower them with adoration. 17-year-old Die Mbaye, with her hair in the colors of the Senegal flag, said, “We deserved it, we have been waiting for 60 years.” The players and coaching staff of the team were paraded through the streets on a coach. The number of people dancing and celebrating was astounding. The Monday after the victory was declared a public holiday by the government. It was a sign of how much winning the tournament meant to the Senegalese. Senegalese supporters also showed their support for the team in Paris and New York. The Senegal fans in Paris celebrated at the Arc de Triomphe. Senegal is a country with a strong football heritage. The country has a history of developing good teams and players. One of their greatest teams is the one that reached the 2002 AFCON final, losing to Cameroon on penalties. This team did well at the 2002 Korea/Japan FIFA World Cup too, reaching the quarter-finals of the tournament and beating France, who were world champions at that time, along the way. The quarter-final is the furthest an African nation has gone in a World Cup. Senegal has produced a number of players such as El Hadji Diouf, Papa Bouba Diop, and Aliou Cisse.
The victory of Senegal holds a lot more value for Cisse. Cisse was part of the team that worked hard but failed to win any silverware in 2002. It was he who missed the decisive penalty in 2002 against Cameroon. He has been there through all the hard work, desperation, and failure. Hired as coach in 2015, he was the leader of the team when Senegal lost another Africa Cup of Nations final in 2019. There had been rumors that he could be fired but his players supported him at a challenging moment. He finally got to lift the trophy that had eluded him for so long. “I am an African champion. It was long, it was difficult, sometimes complicated, but we never gave up,” he said. “I dedicate this victory to the Senegalese people. For years we have been chasing this cup. Today we will be able to put a star on our jersey. Winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon has a special meaning. Winning against the most successful team in Africa is another symbol,” he added. This is certainly a win that Cisse, his team, and the country Senegal will savor for a long time.