This article is part of a series from Russia that analyses the socio-political issues surrounding the World Cup. Over the next month, with a combination of perspectives and reporting from the ground, overlooked and underplayed themes in football will be carried to the surface on The Wire.
Moscow: The sizeable Polish contingent appeared wherever the eyes raced. The Spartak Stadium, with its red seats, became redder – as if that was even possible – from the scarlet and white colours of Poland. The banners, scarves, and jerseys of Polish fans had an overpowering impact on the atmosphere. Only in patches did the Poles not appear among the 44,190-strong crowd.
It was a strange sight for a match at a neutral venue. But the World Cup is not an equalising force. Visiting the host country during a tournament is beyond the means of most, even if your national side is a participant. This is why Polish fans, on account of proximity and cheap travel, could make their presence felt. Their opponent Senegal had only about 1000 fans in attendance, and that too was a generous estimate.
This created a scenario which is an unlikely sight at the World Cup. Poland’s national anthem brought passionate singing from all corners of the stadium; when it was Senegal’s turn to sing, the Polish fans clapped in unison to drown the anthem out. If that was supposed to hurt the Senegalese side’s morale, it did not work – the West Africans started their campaign with an impressive win.
Sixteen years on from its historic run to the World Cup quarterfinal, Senegal is back with a flourish to the tournament which put it on the football map. This is only the second appearance by the Lions of Teranga, as they are affectionately known, at the World Cup; their previous participation saw them register one of the biggest shocks in history when they defeated defending champion France on the opening day of the 2002 tournament.
On Tuesday, inevitable comparisons were made with that famous win but coach Aliou Cisse would not jump on that bandwagon. While acknowledging the importance of a winning start, Cisse remarked, “Not the same thing, not the same taste. France and Senegal have a history, France colonised Senegal, so when we faced France as opening match, that was quite exceptional. We were immigrants, many (21 of a 23-member squad) of us played in France.”
In fact, some of them could have even turned out for France and regarded France as their team when Senegal was not playing. Aliou Cisse was also among those who owed his football career to the time spent in France. Captain of the 2002 history-making team, Cisse knows better than most that the victory over Poland cannot be placed on the same pedestal.
However, the Senegal manager is the flag-bearer of another flagrant issue in football. Cisse is the only black manager at this World Cup, and according to an educated guess, the ninth-ever black coach to lead a team in football’s ostensibly universalised spectacle. Exact records on black managers in international football do not exist, but their severe underrepresentation is in plain sight.
Cisse has refused to be too critical of football for this but his answer at press conference here on Monday spoke volumes. “It’s true that I am the only black coach in this World Cup. Football is a universal sport. It is good to see there is a black coach but, beyond football, it shows we have quality coaches. I represent a new generation that would like to have its place in African and world football.”
The remarkable thing about Cisse’s tenure with Senegal is the presence of a completely ‘in-house’ support staff. Two members of his retinue, Tony Sylva and Omar Daf, were part of the 2002 team as well. This shows that Cisse’s belief in the ability of African coaches is not merely an act of posturing.
In fact, African solidarity has been a running theme in the Senegal manager’s statements. Even on Thursday, Cisse was keen to stress that the Lions of Teranga were representatives of Africa and not just their own country. Senegal’s victory arrived in an important moment for African football, as the other four representatives from the continent had started their campaigns with a loss in Russia.
As Cisse rightly said on Tuesday, it is too early to judge other teams from the continent. However, the Eurocentric lens which dominates perspectives in football is all too quick to question the ‘merit’ of African sides every time there is a downturn in performance. It is obvious that such scrutiny is a function of football’s power structure. The cultural and football capital of European countries, primarily Western Europe, instills a sense of entitlement in them and the rest are viewed as guests in the party they hold every four years.
Senegal, however, militates against this idea. In 2002, on its debut appearance, the West African side knocked France and Sweden out. Now, 16 years later, it has already defeated Poland. For one of the poorest countries in the world, this is a remarkable achievement. The current Senegalese side also makes a mockery of another racial stereotype, that of lazy and undisciplined Africans. On Thursday, its composed performance dispatched that myth to the garbage bin.
Of course, this is a result of more Senegalese players featuring in the top leagues of Europe these days. Week in, week out, the likes of Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli) and Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton) prove their mettle against the best of the world. Even if Senegal fails to make repeat its 2002 performance, its confident start to the World Cup will only boost the prospects for Senegalese football.
It will also give strength to arguments that question long-held assumptions about black coaches. There is a wide resonance to this debate. In England, there have been suggestions to implement an equivalent of the Rooney Rule – a policy in the USA’s National Football League (American football, not soccer) to interview at least one ethnic minority coach for job vacancies, so as to increase their access to opportunities they would not have otherwise. Notably, only eight of the 92 managers in English league football last season were black, Asian or from another ethnic minority.
African football has also had a long-term fascination with white coaches but the success of Stephen Keshi (Nigeria), Florent Ibenge (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Cisse is altering perceptions. In the lead up to the World Cup, the Senegalese coach did face severe criticism. But an impressive run in Russia can be a powerful force for change.
In an interview to The Guardian before the World Cup, former Liverpool star Stan Collymore addressed the neglect of the black manager in football. “The thing white men hate most, that they’re scared of most, is outspoken black men,” said Collymore. However, Cisse’s calm assurance can also shake the unfair foundations on which football rests. The coach’s self-belief suggests no opposition will faze him and his players. If Senegal’s joyride rolls on, a few myths will be crushed in the process as well.