The term football nation is often used and many seem to not define it correctly in most cases. Many consider a football nation to be one that consistently wins trophies, be it at international level or through the representation of its domestic clubs. By that definition we have the obvious big names of Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and many more. But in fact such a myopic definition cannot be taken as the only barometer for what a football nation is. Indeed many in the Balkan regions are football nations for all the great players they have produced. In effect it was the split up of the Soviet Union which uncovered that the foundation of the USSR was based on the presence of Ukrainians and Croatians. But a football nation is not even simply defined by its success and players it has produced. In fact the passion of the fans and their love for the game is yet another important factor. In that sense, Africa boasts many football nations and no fans are more interesting than the Senegalese.
It had been about two and a half years since I was last in Senegal. I had the pleasure a few weeks ago [August the 10th] to attend the Senegal vs.Morocco friendly. It was great to be in amongst the fans and for the first time I understood something very intrinsic to Senegalese football and its fans.
In West Africa we hear more about the likes of Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast in terms of football nations. The reason for which is more related to the fact that they have many players who get the exposure of playing in big leagues abroad. However that in no way means Senegalis weaker by comparison. The issue is that Senegal’s biggest exposure had come at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but the team has not done much [internationally or in Africa] since that feat. Despite the drought of sorts that Senegalese football has experienced, it is coming back very strongly. Particularly with a crop of great strikers who are all on the back of remarkable seasons. Indeed Moussa Sow was a double winner for Lille(Ligue 1 & Coupe de France) and ended as Ligue 1 top scorer (25 goals). Papiss Demba Cisse was the main protagonist for Freiburg as the Senegalese ended second top scorer of the Bundesliga (22 goals) and Dame N’Doye was Danish champion with København as well as league top scorer (25 goals). The technically gifted Demba Ba and experienced Mamadou Niang – who was Turkish champion with Fenerbahçe – can also be counted as important members of this impressive Senegalese attack.
Consequently there has been a lot of buzz about the prospects of Senegal both on the continent and internationally. The arrival of Morocco at the Leopold Sédar Senghor Stadium was seen as an opportunity to confirm the team’s recent good form. The atmosphere of the stadium was great, but it all changed as the match dragged on. Senegal relinquished two goals in the opening half hour and, from the looks of the play, did not look to be coming back. The team barely managed to construct cohesive attacks and barely created even half chances on goal. What was more interesting to observe however was the fans’ reaction as the game was going on.
Obviously there was a lot of moaning and groaning. The midfield could not string three passes together without gifting possession away to the Moroccans. However the fans never gave up on the team and I found that even poor attempts on goal were met with roaring applause. For instance every time a Senegalese player took a shot, even though most were terribly wayward, it was welcomed with an uproar of applause. This was in stark contrast to my reactions, which were more akin to burying my head in my hands. And every time, without fail, a fan next to me would raise me up and assure me the team was “at least trying to force the issue.” The same happened whenever a player performed a step-over and tried to burst through the Moroccan defense, successfully or unsuccessfully.
What I learnt in this match about the Senegalese fan is that we love players who take responsibility and grab the game by the scruff of the neck when things are not going well. Furthermore we have a love for players who attempt to do the fancy things of football and have an eye for the spectacular. We enjoy the spectacle of the game, without being overly pragmatic. The game is about entertainment and that very mentality is born of the love of the game from a young age. When growing up playing football with friends in the street, the move that brings the most joy, amusement and cheers from your peers is the nutmeg. In a way the nutmeg is the ultimate humiliation for the victim & the highest form of technical praise for the one who performs it amongst Senegalese kids.
What Senegalese fans bemoan the most out of this team today however is the absence of a central playmaker. Indeed Senegal lacks that at the moment and it would be an issue if we were unable to feed the ball to out great strikers. As Senegalese, we do indeed love playmakers, dribblers and flying wingers. We love football for its beauty, its flair and all the art that our players can bring to it. This is not to say that we lack the hunger to win and would rather lose 4-3 than win 1-0, but it’s simply that we enjoy winning and winning beautifully. After all, with technically proficient neighbors in West Africa as well as north of us (Morocco,Egypt,Algeria), we try hard to match and surpass them in that respect. In a way, it is part of our mentality that tells us that we can do everything and do it better than others.
By Ogo Sylla
Ogo is a freelance correspondent for the Senegal National Team, as well as a SerieA columnist for a number of websites. You can follow him on Twitter @RossonerOgo_333.