The man who wrote history for Senegal twice: Aliou Cissé thrives in manager role for the African champions

Senegal made their first appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 2002, as they were an unknown quantity for many, with few players that were established in the European top leagues.

Back then, captained by a fiery midfielder-cum-defender in Aliou Cissé, the African side delivered one of the all-time surprises of the world football flagship tournament, winning the opening game of the tournament, 1-0, against France, who were the reigning champions.

Eventually, France were eliminated from the group phase, while Senegal secured their best-ever finish, riding the wave until the quarter-finals, where they were eliminated by Turkey, with a golden goal scored by Ilhan Mansiz in the 94th minute.

It was the type of things that wrote legacies for many of the Senegal players who took the court, especially for Cissé, who moved to France aged 9, dreaming about playing for Paris Saint-Germain. He fulfilled that dream, featuring in the squad between 1998 and 2002, before moving to the Premier League, where he played for Birmingham and Portsmouth.

But in 2002, Senegal wrote history and it was mostly due to Cissé, who was truly the lynchpin of the squad, a clear mind on the centre of the pitch in an unexperienced side. But that edition of the FIFA World Cup was also the starting point of a coaching career that saw Cissé respected and even adored in his home country.

Only a few months later, though, tragedy struck. Cissé lost several members of his family in the MV Le Joola ferry disaster that occurred off the coast of The Gambia on 26 September 2002, where over 1900 people died. In total, 11 family members, including his sister, died in the accident.

His leadership took control and he took a prime position in organising a friendly match between Senegal and Nigeria, arranging for both sets of players to attend, coaching the Senegal team and donating $6,000 to the cause from his own pocket.

It was a given that after his retirement he was going to become a coach and ten years later, he took over the Senegal Under-23 team, where he was an assistant at the London 2012 Olympic Games, as Senegal was also eliminated in the quarter-finals.

Back then, the steely former midfielder was set on a mission to revolutionise Senegalese football, after the team failed to make the cut for the 2010 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, while finishing 13th in 2012, losing all the three matches played.

He went back and forth between France and Belgium to scout potential players and there was the current backbone of the national team formed, with players like Cheikou Kouyaté or Sadio Mané unearthed.

“Really we cannot thank him enough. In 2012 no one knew me nor Sadio Mané. He came to find me in Belgium and went to find Sadio from FC Metz. He’s close to the players. He finds the right words to really motivate us,” said Kouyaté for “The Guardian”.

Being revealed as the right man for the job, Cissé was touted to be the next Senegal national team manager and he took up the position in 2015, becoming the longest-tenured coach in the history of the squad, with a seven-year stint that extended throughout the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The street-smart Cissé knew exactly what to bring to the team and named to his backroom staff Omar Daf, Lamine Diatta and the goalkeeping coach Tony Sylva, players who have the experience of bringing Senegal to the highest of echelons in world football, having been teammates with the current coach in 2002.

Now, 20 years later, at another edition of the FIFA World Cup organised in Asia, Senegal are riding the wave once again, making the knockout rounds once again, for the second time in history.

“These are players who have grown. I am with players who have been in the national team for a long time and they are at big clubs. They want to write their own history. We don’t have a World Cup every year. They know that this could be their last. That is close to their heart,” said Cissé when asked what motivates the team.

2022 has been an outstanding year for the dreadlocked manager, who helped his side win the first-ever African Cup of Nations, after winning the final, 4-2 on penalties, against big rivals Egypt.

Two months later, Cissé led Senegal to another penalty win, 3-1, against Egypt, in the 2022 FIFA World Cup African play-offs.

“I don’t know whether or not I’m an inspiration because, before me, we mustn’t forget that there were other federations who put their trust in their own coaches. What I’m saying is that, yes, things really are progressing, so it’s up to us to keep it going. We know that it isn’t easy to be the head coach of your own country. Whatever people might say, it’s a lot more difficult,” said Cissé.

But the masterstroke came at Qatar 2022. Senegal lost their star player, Sadio Mané through an injury just before the start of the competition. But their wins against hosts Qatar, 3-1, and Ecuador, 2-1, were just enough to help Senegal seal a place between the top 16 teams in the world.

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