Emotions will always be high after qualifying for the qualifying stages of international football’s premier tournament, especially for an African country that has done so for the second time in its history.
But Senegal’s collective effort to make it to the last 16 at this year’s World Cup, after beating Ecuador in second place in Group A on Tuesday, was of far greater significance.
The formidable success, sealed by the spectacular volley of Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly – the perfect moment to score his first international goal – came on the second anniversary of the death of former Fulham and Portsmouth, one of the greatest Senegalese footballers of all time. midfielder Papa Bouba Diop.
Diop tragically passed away in 2020 at just 42 years old, with many fans wearing sports shirts or painting their bodies in the crowd with the number 19 on their backs, while Koulibaly wore a modified captain’s armband with a 19 on it as a sign of respect.
After the match, everyone had Diop on their minds.
Koulibaly, who received the man of the match award, said: “This is a great moment for me and the team. It was a tough draw and we lost the first game. It was one of the most important moments for the team.
“I am happy to have won the man of the match but the whole team deserves it. I will give the trophy to my father, his death anniversary, his family.
“The anniversary of his death was important to us and his family. We wanted to make him proud. He was an inspiration to me. We wanted to play in his memory. This was something we didn’t want to miss out on. We need to show why we are champions of Africa.”
The fact that Senegal had such teamwork on such an important day added even more shine to an event that many will never forget.
It was a devastating blow for the African champions when Sadio Mane, the all-time top scorer, was removed from the squad on the eve of the tournament, and many thought he would have a hard time coming back.
But in the absence of the Bayern Munich striker, goals that were not tied to a single player like many other countries flowed from every angle.
Senegal has had five different goalscorers at this World Cup – Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhiou, Bamba Dieng, Ismaïla Sarr and Koulibaly – to become their top goal scorer in a single tournament, beating 2002 points.
“We are a family and a well-oiled machine, so we wanted to give this gift back to the Senegalese population and Senegalese around the world,” Koulibaly added.
“When I heard about (Mane’s) injury, I couldn’t believe it. I knew there would be a lot more pressure, but we are a team. Yes, Sadio is a star and icon of the Senegalese football team and we sometimes play for him but there are 11 players on the football field.
“We have other great players and now is their time to shine.”
On paper, England will certainly take their chances against Maneless Senegal in the last 16, but in knockout football, where games are usually determined by one goal, it will certainly not be easy to beat a team as a single unit.