If Africa were a single country, its history and founding myths could be narrated around thrilling episodes of “the beautiful game” on the world stage. Ask any not-so-young African what their best memories of the World Cup are, and you may hear about that day in 1982 when Algeria beat the mighty West Germany—at the pre-game press conference, a German player had quipped, “We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs.” No one had told him, one suspects, about the Algerian team’s proud past, during the country’s anti-colonial struggle in 1958, as flag-bearers for a nation fighting for freedom.
Another iconic moment etched in African collective memory is the day when Cameroon inflicted a stunning defeat on Diego Maradona’s Argentina at the opening game of the 1990 World Cup. Africa danced with the formidable forward Roger Milla, then aged thirty-eight, that day, and then did so again after his two goals beat Romania. Milla would later dynamite Colombia twice during extra-time, leading his team to the quarterfinals.
And then there is Senegal, and its cathartic saga during the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. On May 31, 2002, in Seoul, Senegal humiliated France during the opening game. France had entered the game as the defending world champion, whereas Senegal was playing its first ever game in a World Cup championship. The whole world was watching.
The best thing about soccer is its capacity for surprise. “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it,” as the Uruguayan writer and football philosopher Eduardo Galeano wrote, “soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable.” And so it proved, that day in Seoul. Senegal faced a turning-point in history, which it was determined to write. After Bouba Diop scored half an hour into the game, the eleven “Lions” vowed to defend the homeland’s dignity at all costs—and did so, winning 1-0.
In the world of sports, the FIFA World Cup in many ways exemplifies the legacies of colonialism, current global inequalities, oppressive capitalism, greed, and corruption. Soccer stadiums are places where nationalism is on full display, patriotism is disputed, and racism is hurled in the shape of banana peels and the sound of monkey chants from the sidelines. In the stadium, fans of France felt free to abuse their striker Karim Benzema, whose parents are immigrants from Algeria, for not singing the national anthem even though they idolized the former star Zinedine Zidane, who shares the same background and did not sing the Marseillaise either. Racism in sports, and among sports fans, can be extraordinary: it allows admiration for Muhammad Ali and hate for Colin Kaepernick to inhabit the same mind. But World Cup stadiums, as we were reminded in 2002, can also be containers for joy, and makers of other meanings.
After that famous win over France, crowds flooded the streets of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The country’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, joined them downtown at the Place de l’independence—the same square where, in the dying days of the French empire some four decades earlier, an exasperated General Charles de Gaulle had made a final appeal for the French colonies to remain in a so-called French Community instead of choosing independence. In August 1958, de Gaulle came out of retirement to save the nation and salvage the empire—visiting Madagascar, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Senegal—in the aftermath of the French military disaster in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu, and as the Algerian war of liberation was raging. To no avail. Senegal became independent in 1960, and that history was very present when the two nations faced each other again, this time on the soccer field.
The team that won that day in 2002 was a carefree bunch of unruly yet talented kids, with a healthy appetite for fun. Their coach was Bruno Metsu, a Frenchman, who is still beloved as a prophet in Senegal. Metsu later converted to Islam, changed his first name to Abdou Karim, and etched Senegal in his heart. When he died of cancer in 2013 in Paris, his adoptive nation mourned and paid tribute to him, as thousands of people accompanied him to his final resting place in Dakar.
By beating its former colonizer at sport, the Senegalese team had lifted a people and dignified a nation. Senegal winning against France was bound to resonate as a response to its past history with France—a history of plunder of lives and goods, of forced labor and conscription to fight European wars, of humiliations and exactions.
This week, Senegal returned to the World Cup with another chance to enchant the world. The Generation 2002 team, as they are fondly referred to, is long gone. But as this year’s squad took the field on Tuesday against Poland, their forebears’ aura was looming over them—not least because our captain in 2002, Aliou Cissé, is now Senegal’s manager. A protégé of Metsu, who spotted Cissé early in his career in France and then made him central to his team, Cissé was a combative and charismatic midfielder. After retiring as a player, he launched his coaching career by leading Senegal’s Under-23 squad to the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympics. Now he’s the only black manager at the World Cup, and a visible advocate for more African countries’ hiring homegrown rather than imported coaches to lead their teams. That Cissé is also the lowest paid among the thirty-two managers in Russia tells its own story about how skewed things still are. But against Poland, his team played with discipline and verve, and won 2-1.
That win signaled another possible wild ride for the “Lions.” But whatever our star striker Sadio Mané and his teammates accomplish this time around in Russia, we will just crack a wide, nostalgic smile and reminisce about the late Abdou Karim Metsu and his bunch of wild kids who stood up, fought, and won for us. All of us.
Oumar Ba is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He is on the editorial board of the online magazine Africa as a Country. (June 2018)