MOSCOW — On the sixth day of the 2018 World Cup, the Lions of Teranga struck a welcome and belated blow for Africa.
It’s a bit of a running soccer joke that Pelé isn’t nearly as accurate with a crystal ball as he was with one made of leather. The Brazilian legend’s predictions are notoriously off. Usually it’s good for a laugh. But one of his many mistakes, now some 40 years old, is quite poignant.
When Pelé said in the late 1970s that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000, he was giving himself quite a bit of leeway. And when Cameroon reached the quarterfinals in 1990 before losing narrowly to England, an African triumph seemed to be just a matter of time. Two decades after the continent supposedly was due, however—the last World Cup of the 1990s was in ’98—no one has surpassed Cameroon’s achievement. And only Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) have matched it.
Africa, despite producing a wealth of elite players who populate the sport’s top leagues, hasn’t come close to bringing home the trophy. In fact, over the past four World Cups, just five of 20 African entrants have survived the group stage. For tournament prognosticators who care about accuracy, predicting African failure is way more likely to pay off.
This World Cup, the seventh since Cameroon’s run to the last eight in Italy, started poorly for African sides. They were 0-4-0 (with only one goal scored) before a fortunate but still deserving Senegal defeated Poland, 2-1, Tuesday at Spartak Moscow’s Otkritie Arena.
Senegal was the fifth and last African side to debut, and now it’s well-positioned to make a run. That’s in part because it’s a good team, and in part because Group H is this tournament’s most balanced and unpredictable. Japan (1-0-0) and Colombia (0-1-0) are flawed, and Poland is an unfashionable seed from which little is expected. The Eagles were a Euro 2016 quarterfinalist but aren’t considered a World Cup contender. In fact, some have accused Poland of gaming FIFA’s ranking system in order to secure their seed.
That being said, Poland is still a decent European side, and those teams tend to do well. While Africa has struggled, Europe has thrived, producing the past three World Cup winners and five of the six most recent finalists. Among the 14 European qualifiers this summer, only two lost their openers: Germany—the reigning champ—and Poland.
Senegal’s victory is meaningful, and not only because 85% of first-game winners have advanced in the 32-team format. It’s because Tuesday’s three points indicate the Lions are legit, and that Africa now has a foothold at this World Cup. And that was not lost on Senegal coach Aliou Cissé after the match.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked if his team now was carrying the flag for Africa. “Senegal today represents the whole of the African continent. We are Senegal. We do represent our country. But I can also guarantee that the whole of Africa is supporting our Senegal national team. I get phone calls from everywhere. People do believe in our team, and they’re proud, and we’re also proud to represent Africa.”
Egypt has the biggest star among the five African entrants (and Mo Salah started against Russia later Tuesday in the Pharaohs’ second game), but Senegal isn’t without its share of quality. Liverpool’s Sadio Mané is the biggest name, but he was relatively quiet against Poland. The fact that Senegal won is a testament to the team behind him. Among Cissé’s 11 starters, only one plays his club football domestically (goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye). Four are based in England, two in France and two in Italy’s Serie A.
African national teams, especially those from West Africa, typically bring stacked squads to a World Cup, full of men who play in the sport’s top leagues. It rarely seems to matter, however. There are lots of theories and potential explanations for Africa’s World Cup standstill, from infrastructure, coaching and team chemistry, to federation politics or corruption (see Ghana’s recent scandal). It’s probably some of each. But the upshot has been consistent. In the past four World Cups, there’s been just one African quarterfinalist, and Ghana’s 2010 team got there by beating the USA.
Cissé said prior to Tuesday’s games that African teams should be knocking on the door.
“I have the certainty that one day, an African country will win the World Cup,” he insisted. “Some 20-25 years ago, African countries came just to be a part of the World Cup. … We just have to go on to the next phase. We are here. We exist. We may win. But it takes more time. It’s a bit more complicated in our countries. We have realities that aren’t there in the other continents. But I think the African continent is full of quality. We’re on the way.”
Senegal was on its way early at Spartak, and its quality was apparent. The Lions played high, swarmed the Polish midfield and cut off service to star striker Robert Lewandowski. Their opening goal was fortunate, coming off a wayward 37th-minute shot by midfielder Idrissa Gueye that caromed in off a Polish defender. But it was deserved. And so was Senegal’s 1-0 halftime lead.
Some controversy surrounded the eventual game-winner. Forward Mbaye Niang, who plays for Torino, was allowed back onto the field after receiving treatment in the 60th minute, just as Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak lofted a back pass to teammate Jan Bednarek. Neither realized Niang was racing over from the sideline. Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who plays for Torino’s rival, Juventus, left his line but couldn’t cut off Niang. It was a simple finish into an empty net.
Poland found a bit more attacking rhythm toward the end and halved its deficit on a header by Krychowiak in the 86th, but the Eagles would come no closer. Lewandowski’s dearth of chances and the absence of injured center back Kamil Glik loomed large and unlucky.
“We did deserve that luck. The whole team deserved that luck,” Niang said. “We worked an awful lot, and today we deserved it, and we managed to seize this opportunity at the time it was given to us.”
The opportunity now facing Senegal is obvious. Japan and Colombia stand in the way of a second-round berth, and a first-placefinish could mean a knockout-round showdown with the likes of England. The Lions (of Teranga, not Three) wouldn’t be cowed by that matchup. The spotlight will only get brighter from here. The African storyline will continue, but Senegal is worth following in its own right. Mané will be expected to be more of a factor, and Cissé himself is a compelling figure—the captain of Senegal’s famous, France-beating ‘02 team and one of a handful natives to manage a sub-Saharan country at a World Cup.
“It shows that we also have quality coaches among us,” Cissé said.
Now comes the chance to show that Africa has a world-class team.
“We’re not too euphoric,” the coach said. “We’re not going to go crazy. We still have two matches, and Senegal does want to get out of the group phase.”