A swirl of dreadlocks sank to the floor as the referee blew his whistle for the last time. Coach Aliou Cisse felt a rush of relief after his Senegalese team galloped into the Round of 16 for the second time in their country’s history. A late winner from defender Kalidou Koulibaly gave the country a costly victory over Ecuador and a knockout match against England at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
However, for Cisse, the return to the knockout stage was a place he remembers all too well. He’s repeated a feat he’d sworn off once before a few decades ago – only that time he was the captain and his team had just knocked out the then-defending world champion, France.
Follow the career of Aliou Cisse and you will see the characteristics of a man marked by his failures. He failed as a player to win the 2002 African Cup of Nations against Cameroon 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 go on to beat world champions France in the 2002 World Cup, knocking them out of Seoul. A few decades later, Cisse would coach Senegal to their first ever African Nations Cup victory, when a Sadio Mane-led team defeated Mohammed Salah-led Egypt in Cameroon.
Even this World Cup campaign comes with its own promise to exorcise trauma. During the 2018 edition, Senegal van Cisse became the first ever team in World Cup history to be ejected from the group stage of the tournament on fair play tiebreaker rules. This came after they were tied with Japan, but exited the tournament due to an increased number of yellow cards. This time, however, Senegal made sure that 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” for his dictate of a much more measured approach on the field, spoke to the New York Times before the World Cup and claimed that his team was no less than others.
“When I look at my midfielders, my defenders, my goalkeeper, I have nothing to envy against France or Spain, for example. Kalidou Koulibaly is as valuable as Marquinhos for Brazil or John Stones for England. Hugo Lloris is no better than Édouard Mendy. That’s the kind of confidence I want to give my players, I want them to tell themselves that if France can win, why can’t we?
France and Cisse have had a special bond. At the age of 14, the midfielder moved to the Lille youth academy. He continued to grow as a footballer in France, playing for French clubs such as 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 was sent off on his debut against Arsenal.
After his playing career ended, Cisse moved up the coaching ranks. His first real spell with Senegal began when he took over the U23 team in 2012 and then moved to the first team in 2015. Senegal’s constant turnover of coaches was one that ended with his appointment.
“From 2002 to 2015, no coach stayed in Senegal for more than two years. How do you want to achieve something? It’s impossible, and our leaders had to understand it. They did that to me. When I took over the team in 2015, people asked, ‘Why are you giving him the team? He has no experience.’ But I knew the expectations and the reality of this national team,” Cisse told NYT.
One of the main changes Cisse made in Senegal was to ensure that all his players from different European clubs would arrive at the same time and get used 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 part of the Senegalese league or playing in Africa, with binationals, players who would ply their trade in Europe and only come home for international duty – as he once was . .
The result – a team that had played three consecutive World Cups without qualifying and poor African Nations Cup results – was a turning point. Since 2015, Senegal has made it to the quarter-finals and finals and then won the biggest African tournament. They have qualified for two World Cups, despite Africa taking only five places in a 32-team format.
But most importantly, Cisse has a generation of football players who believe in him and his ways. Most of them came up with him and owe their national flying career to him.
Most of them have been part of the highs and lows of the past seven years. Players like Sané, Koulibaly and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy play for top European clubs and are encouraged by Cisse’s belief that this team operates at a high level – high enough to dethrone some of Europe’s top teams – just as he once did.