A whirl of dreadlocks slumped to the floor as the referee blew his whistle one last time for the night. Coach Aliou Cisse felt a wave of relief go through him after his Senegal team galloped into the Round-of-16, only for the second time in the history of their country. A late winner by defender Kalidou Koulibaly earned the country a precious win over Ecuador and a knockout stage showdown against England at the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
For Cisse though, the return to the knockout stages was a place he remembers all too well. He has repeated a feat he had conjured once earlier a couple of decades back – only that time he was the captain, and his team had just knocked out the then defending champions of the world, France.
Trace Aliou Cisse’s career and you see the markings of a man that’s defined by his failures. He failed to win the 2002 African Cup of Nations against Cameroon as a player after missing a penalty, as captain. When that incident happened, he told a friend that if not as a player, he would make it his life’s mission to win an African Cup of Nations for his country Senegal as a coach.
A few months after that proclamation, Senegal would defeat World Champions France in the 2002 World Cup and knock them out of Seoul. A couple of decades later, Cisse would coach Senegal to their first ever African Nations Cup win when a Sadio Mane-led team beat a Mohammed Salah-led Egypt in Cameroon.
Even this World Cup campaign comes with its own promise of exorcising trauma. At the 2018 edition, Cisse’s Senegal became the first ever team in World Cup history to be ousted from the tournament’s group stage on fair play tiebreaker rules. This happened after they were level on points with Japan, but exited the tournament because of a higher number of yellow cards. This time though, Senegal made sure no such rule would dictate their fate.
Their reward for a successful group stage? A showdown against Gareth Southgate’s England.
Cisse, known as ‘El Tactico’ due to his dictat of taking a far more measured approach on the pitch, spoke to the New York Times before the World Cup and maintained that his team was no lesser than others.
“When I look at my midfielders, my defenders, my goalkeeper, I have nothing to envy to, say, France or Spain. Kalidou Koulibaly is as valuable as Marquinhos for Brazil or John Stones for England. Hugo Lloris isn’t better than Édouard Mendy. That’s the kind of confidence I want my players to have. I want them to tell themselves that if France can win, why not us?”
France and Cisse have had a special connection. At the age of 14, the midfielder moved to Lille’s youth academy. He continued to grow as a footballer in France, playing for French clubs like CS Sedan Ardennes and Paris Saint Germain in the late 90s. Beating the French national team catapulted Cisse into the English Premier League where he played for Birmingham City and got sent off on his debut against Arsenal.
After his playing career ended, Cisse moved up the coaching ranks. His first real stint with Senegal began when he took over the U23 team in 2012 and then graduated to the first team in 2015. Senegal’s constant turnover of coaches was one that ended with his appointment.
“From 2002 to 2015, not one coach stayed for more than two years in Senegal. How do you want to accomplish anything? It’s impossible, and our leaders had to understand it. They did with me. When I took over the team in 2015, people were asking: ‘Why are you giving him the team? He has no experience.’ But I knew the expectations and the reality of this national team,” said Cisse to NYT.
One of the key changes Cisse implemented at Senegal was to make sure all his players from different European clubs would arrive at the same time and acclimatise to their home country. There would be time for eating and drinking their local food but football always came first.
He also became successful in integrating the locals, players who were a part of Senegal’s league or played in Africa, with binationals, players who would be plying their trade in Europe and would only come back home for international duty – as he once used to be.
The result – a team that had gone three consecutive World Cups without qualifying and poor African Nations Cup results, made a turnaround. Since 2015, Senegal have made it to the quarter-finals, Finals and then won the biggest African tournament. They have qualified for two World Cups despite Africa only getting five spots in a 32-team format.
But most importantly, Cisse has a generation of footballers who believe in him and his ways. Most of them came up with him and owe their national career’s flying to him.
Most of them have been part of the highs and lows that have come in the previous seven years. Players like Sane, Koulibaly and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy play at top European clubs and are emboldened by Cisse’s belief that this team operates at a high level – high enough to knock some top European teams off their perch – just as he did once upon a time.