‘Senegal is the best’: Dakar’s dreaming of World Cup upset

Just under 4,500 miles (7,200km) away from the shiny stadiums in Qatar, a man named Serigne Fallou confidently proclaims that he already knows what the result will be on Sunday when England take on Senegal in the World Cup’s round of 16.

“Absolutely, Senegal will win, 1-0,” says Fallou, an apartment doorman in Dakar, Senegal’s bustling capital on the Atlantic Ocean. “I don’t have a doubt.”

People sit at a restaurant on the coastline watching a world cup match on a large screen in Dakar.
People sit at a restaurant on the coastline watching a World Cup match on a large screen in Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

There’s a buzz in the air in the small west African country, where the Lions of Teranga have been on a hot streak of late. Players such as Sadio Mané (recently traded from Liverpool to Bayern Munich), Kalidou Koulibaly of Chelsea, and Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye star in the European leagues. They bested Mo Salah’s Egypt to win the Africa Cup of Nations this year, sparking multi-day street parties in Dakar that delayed the arrival of the winners – and their trophy – from the airport as they crawled through seven hours of crowd-induced traffic welcoming them home.

Two local teams play on a sand pitch in the North Dakar neighbourhood of N’gor.
Two local teams play on a sand pitch in the north Dakar neighbourhood of N’gor. Photograph: Guy Peterson

And now, the Senegalese are ready to win what would be their first World Cup.

Street hawkers in the crowded capital, thronging with millions of residents, have traded – or added to – their stocks of kitchenware, phone chargers, or tourist tchotchkes for Senegalese flags, wrist bands, headbands, and shirts. Jerseys of varying legality go for 5,000 to 15,000 CFA francs (£6.50 to £19.56), with young children often running around the street decked out head to toe in full kits before games.

Ablaye Diaby puts up a large flag under dozens of football shirts on a wall across from his small shop selling more merch in Dakar.
Ablaye Diaby puts up a large flag under dozens of football shirts on a wall across from his small shop selling more merchandise in Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

“They will win. The Senegalese team is the champion of Africa,” says Ousseynou Thioune, selling a variety of jerseys and wristbands on a busy boulevard. He ups Fallou’s prediction, to 2-0.

“They’re still the Lions, even without Sadio,” Thioune says, referencing star forward Mané, who was injured in a Bayern game just before the beginning of the World Cup.

A women buys a Senegal football shirt from Ousseynou Thioune (middle left) in Dakar ahead of Dakar’s game with England on Sunday.
A women buys a Senegal football shirt from Ousseynou Thioune (middle left) in Dakar ahead of Dakar’s game with England on Sunday. Photograph: Guy Peterson

When it was announced that the Ballon d’Or runner-up would have to sit out, drama and consternation among the football- and Mané-crazed populace ensued. In the aftermath, one man told France24 that “I cried when I saw” the news.

“With my friends, we were talking about it. There were some who had bought a television [to watch the World Cup] – and they sold it back,” he said.

People set up small goals to play football on a concrete pitch in a residential area of Dakar.
People set up small goals to play football on a concrete pitch in a residential area of Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

Yet the Lions have more than persevered. Their opening game against Netherlands, resulting in a 2-0 loss, was quickly pushed aside with 3-1 and 2-1 wins over Qatar and Ecuador, respectively.

A young boy looks over a football stadium pitch in a residantial area of Dakar.
A young boy looks over a football stadium pitch in a residential area of Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

“This year, this World Cup, I hope the Africans are going to the final. An African team must qualify. And Senegal is the best,” Thioune says. Along with Senegal, Morocco have also advanced out of the group stage, with Cameroon and Ghana still in with a chance of qualification too going into their final group matches on Friday.

“Football helps people forget about unemployment, it helps people forget about their problems,” Thioune continues. “When there’s football, everybody is talking about football. You’re forced to forget your problems – even the politicians, even the president.”

A Senegalese football fan celebrates during a world cup match at a local sports bar in Dakar.
A Senegalese football fan celebrates during a World Cup match at a local sports bar in Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

In Senegal, the national sport is laamb, a Sumo-like form of traditional wrestling. But like so many other places across the world, football is still the great, globalising equaliser, played everywhere from the country’s pockmarked sandlots to its grand stadiums. When Mané played for Liverpool, it was easy to find television sets and smartphones tuned into the Reds everywhere from Dakar to the smallest villages in Senegal’s rural hinterlands.

“We have [star] players like the English. They play in English championships,” says Ke Ba, a restaurateur who serves up plates of fish, rice, and vegetables – the national dish, thieboudienne – from his small, one-room restaurant. Despite wearing a Manchester jersey, he has no love for the English national team.

“We believe we will win,” he says. “It’s the World Cup – you have to beat the big teams.”

Still, some are hedging their bets.

Djibril serves a customer a breakfast sandwich standing in his corner shop decked out with Senegalese flags and scarves across the shelves.
Djibril serves a customer a breakfast sandwich standing in his corner shop decked out with Senegalese flags and scarves across the shelves. Photograph: Guy Peterson

“No,” says Djibril Diallo, insisting he’s not nervous, per se. But “England – it’s not a small team,” adds the corner store owner, whose shop is dressed up with a Senegalese scarf hanging across a wall of foodstuffs.

“Senegal also, it’s not a small team,” he says. “This match is a bit complicated. Two equals are playing. Two teams, equal. In any case, we’ll pray to God.”

Boys play football on N’Gor beach in Dakar. For many who don’t go to school they spend their days with friends playing the game on the street or on the many beachs around Dakar.
Boys play football on N’Gor beach in Dakar. For many who don’t go to school they spend their days with friends playing the game on the street or on the many beaches around Dakar. Photograph: Guy Peterson

On a nearby beach, young children and adults alike play pick-up games along the shoreline. Even in a worst-case scenario, they’ll be there again on Monday, same as ever, the next generation of Manés, Koulibalys, and Gueyes among them.

The Guardian