Even by the standards of this World Cup, it was absorbing, enthralling drama to the point of comedy. In Volgograd, Japan and Poland passed the ball with all the intensity of a lazy afternoon snooze on the sofa. Four hundred miles away in Samara, Senegal surged in search of an equaliser while Colombia staunchly defended their own goal. Football can rarely have produced two simultaneous and inter-connected matches with such disparate endings that still end with the same scoreline.
At the end of the chaos, a vaguely farcical scenario. Senegal’s players fell to the turf, distraught. They took the same number of points as Japan. They had the same goal difference as Japan. They scored the same number of goals as Japan. They had two more bookings than Japan. For the first time since 1982, there will be no African representation in the knockout stages of the World Cup. For the first time in history, a team was eliminated from a major tournament on fair play rules.
Back in 1982, Cameroon and Algeria were both knocked out on goal difference, Africa only allocated two places. In 2018 and five spots, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were all eliminated with one round of group games remaining. Nigeria eventually suffered at the hands of Lionel Messi and right foot of Marcos Rojo. That left Senegal.
You can argue long into the next four years about the merits of fair play as a means of deciding a teams rank. Personally I would say shots on target (12 vs 12 between Senegal and Japan) and corners (30 vs 21) would encourage attacking play, and so would therefore be more appealing. But Senegal knew the rules at the start of the match. They fell short, however fine the margin.
If it sounds a little twee to suggest that all of Africa was with Senegal, particularly given the failings of their peers, that’s the reality. It’s difficult to imagine England supporters wishing Denmark or Portugal well in their bid to make their way through a tournament, but Africa has never enjoyed tournament domination like UEFA or CONMEBOL nations. When you are fighting damaging stereotypes and a vast wealth gap, it’s worth sticking together. African nations have far more in common than that which divides them.
The continent was also famously made a hostage to fortune by Pele’s ill-fated prediction in the late 1970s that an African team would win the World Cup by the turn of the century. Like so many of Pele’s post-career media sound bites, it was worth ignoring.
“Senegal represent the whole African continent,” said coach Aliou Cisse after Egypt and Morocco’s exit was confirmed. “We are Senegal but I can guarantee that the whole of Africa is supporting Senegal. I get calls and lots of people are proud. We are proud to represent the African continent.”
A continent hoped; a continent weeps. Africa is desperate to make significant major tournament progress because it remains the final frontier of their footballing development. It has produced world-class players, but not yet a world-class team. As the bottom half of the World Cup draw opened up, thoughts turned to Ghana in 2010, a missed penalty away from making the semi-finals. That dream ended too hastily. The final African team will fly home this weekend.
The biggest tragedy of Senegal’s campaign is that they were probably the most accomplished team in Group H and somehow conspired to finish third. Coach Cisse, who brought many of this squad through his Under-23 squad before taking over the senior team, instilled strong tactical discipline that only comes when players implicitly trust the manager. Senegal press in twos and threes, overlapping in similar numbers when counter-attacking.
Let’s also dispel the notion that, as with Egypt, this is a one-man team led by a brilliant Liverpool attacker. Kalidou Koulibaly has improved his reputation as a magnificent ball-playing central defender and may finally get a big-money move. Youssouf Sabaly came of age at full-back. Ismaïla Sarr has been one of the best young players in the entire group stage.
Ultimately, it was not enough. Senegal outclassed a sluggish Colombia for long periods, but paid for their profligacy in front of goal on Thursday and twice allowing a lead to slip in their second group game against Japan. These are hard lessons, but with the eighth youngest squad at the tournament there is reasonable hope that they can be learned. A kinder group stage draw wouldn’t go amiss either.
“I’m very proud of my team and their work but we didn’t qualify because we didn’t deserve it,” was Cisse’s post-match admission, admirably level-headed. Those who have met him will not have been surprised, but the graciousness was still startling.
At 42, Cisse is the youngest coach at this World Cup. His time may come again and he deserves to keep his position. But as the only black coach in the competition, he was aware of his status as role model and ambassador for all of African football. Like Stephen Keshi before him, Cisse let nobody down.
“He is the pride of our our country,” said Senegal’s Sport Minister Matar Ba of Cisse – that still holds true. If the eventual result was bitterly disappointing, the journey still made a difference. It is not patronising to say that Senegal made friends and earned fans along the way, just the truth. The tournament is a lesser competition for their absence.