By Toby Davis
(Reuters) – Senegal’s last appearance at the World Cup 16 years ago marked a golden era in the country’s footballing history and a new generation of talent will fancy their chances of making a similar impact at Russia 2018.
Senegal caused one of the tournament’s most memorable upsets in their only World Cup appearance, beating holders France in the opening game before going on to reach the quarter-finals.
That tournament, however, preceded more than a decade in the doldrums when they never again reached football’s global showpiece or even threatened to capture an African title.
Yet after breezing through qualifying with a team boasting a couple of players who are making waves in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, hopes are high for Russia.
The 2002 side was spearheaded by former Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf and the current crop are also reliant on a man plying his trade on Merseyside.
Attacking talisman Sadio Mane carries the goalscoring and creative burden for Senegal and heads to the World Cup in good form having helped to fire Liverpool into the Champions League final.
While he began the season in underwhelming form, he picked up momentum as it went on, forming a crucial part of one of Europe’s most feared attacking strike forces alongside Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
He is not, however, Senegal’s only player to have made a major impact at their club this season.
Their defence is marshalled by Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, a man-mountain, whose pace and strength make him a formidable obstacle.
Koulibaly has been part of a Napoli side that pushed Juventus all the way in the Italian title race, although his season closed with contrasting emotions.
He scored the winner when the top two played each other in April before seeing red after five minutes in their very next match, a 3-0 defeat by Fiorentina that effectively ended their Serie A hopes.
Senegal, coached by their captain in 2002, Aliou Cisse, lost only once in qualifying comfortably.
That 2-1 defeat in South Africa, however, was later expunged from the records after FIFA found that the referee had manipulated the match on behalf of a betting syndicate.
They will certainly not be daunted by what awaits them in Russia, having been drawn in Group H alongside Poland, Colombia and Japan with no clear favourite to progress.
If they are to emulate their predecessors in 2002 and reach the quarter-finals, they will then have to play the first or second-placed team from Group G, which features Belgium, England, Panama and Tunisia.
(Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Martyn Herman)