SADIO MANE’S second place in the Fifa player rankings is another sign that Senegal is fast becoming the lion’s den of African football.
It will show whether the growl is bigger than the bite at the World Cup starting next month.
Whatever the success of its team, though, the current African champions will owe plenty to chief coach Aliou Cisse, seven years in the job with proven ability of moulding useful parts into a formidable machine.
Mane is the player with claws — darting, challenging and quick to expose loose defending.
Undoubtedly, he’s the headline act, but the script is being written by ‘El Tactico’ the boss who played for Birmingham and Portsmouth not so many years back.
I remember him at St Andrews. He was smart, friendly and an absolute professional.
His character was tested to the limit during his time with the Blues.
Tragically, he lost 11 relatives in a ferry that sank crossing from Gambia to Senegal.
He kept the terrible news to himself for days before the facts emerged.
Naturally we invited him to take indefinite leave but that wasn’t his way of mourning.
He stayed with us for all but a few days, going about his business with dignity, asking for no favours, showing incredible mental strength.
If there is such a person as a natural manager, the beloved Cisse is close.
First though he was a natural captain, leading Senegal to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2002.
In a curious parallel with England’s Gareth Southgate, he too had to live with missing a vital penalty kick.
Both eventually shrugged off the constant reminders of failure (not much of one really) and use it to explain to failing takers that it is by no means the end of the world.
Already a nation of football obsessives, winning the African pennant became a yearning hunger among the 17 million Senegalese.
It was finally satisfied last January by the defeat of Egypt whose Real Madrid-like domination had brought seven previous triumphs.
And Cisse wasn’t slow to point out the tournament’s top three sub-Sahara nations, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal, are managed by former internationals.
No fewer than 16 African countries currently have local coaches.
Cisse’s football education was gained as young boy whose family had moved to the suburbs of Paris.
He grew into a committed defender, receiving five cards in six matches early in his two-season stint with City.
However, he is always realistic about punishment.
When Senegal were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup group under the absurd fair-play tiebreaker rule — they lost by six to four yellow cards — he said: “It’s a sad day for us but we knew these were the regulations.”
Senegal’s group opponents in Qatar are Ecuador, Holland and the host country. Nothing to be frightened of.
I doubt very much whether they will be crowned champions but their team overall is good enough to go at least as far England or Wales.
Africa these days is no pushover and the welcome fact is that her teams are mostly run by Africans. El Tactico is leading the pack.
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