The beautiful thing about the World Cup is its diversity. For a month, you can study teams and players you don’t often get the opportunity to watch. Despite the enjoyment I take in viewing the likes of Spain and Brazil, it’s the surprise packages, the dark horses, that make a tournament special. In 2014, Costa Rica were a penalty shoot-out away from reaching 2014’s semi-finals. In 2010, Uruguay were narrowly beaten in the semi-finals, and in 2006 England reached the quarters.
Obsessed with the idea of predicting who the next overachiever will be I turned my attention to Senegal.
African countries have a rich history of causing upsets in the tournament, but Senegal are not a team often associated with the World Cup. This summer will be just their second appearance on the world’s greatest stage, and, to this point, have gone entirely under the radar. But despite their obscurity, Senegal will be arriving in Russia with plenty of reasons for optimism. Not only do they have what some would describe as a ‘golden generation’, but they stormed through qualifying and have been drawn into a competitive but weak group. It appears the stars are aligning for the African underdogs to upset the apple cart.
A smaller nation usually has just 1 or 2 familiar names. If they’re lucky, those players will be superstars who have the weight of the whole country on their shoulders. Bizarrely, this Senegal squad is laced with stars from Europe’s top leagues, primarily the Premier League.
Sadio Mane is perhaps the most high-profile memeber of the squad. The wide man has produced 20 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season, including a goal in the Champions League final. As a player with the ability to create something out of nothing, he will star for Senegal this summer. At the other end of the pitch sees Kalidou Koulibaly marshal the back four in the heart of defence. The Napoli man put in world-class performances this season and is attracting attention from all over Europe with an astronomic price-tag.
Idrissa Gueye from Everton also joins Senegal. The toffee’s midfielder gives balance to the side with his energetic and athletic style of play. He impressed again this season despite Everton’s rollercoaster campaign. Keita Balde will also be present. The 23-year old winger moved to Monaco last summer for £27m after a couple of impressive seasons at Lazio. Keita is transitioning from wonderkid to star in no time at all. Despite injuries disrupting the 2017/18 season he still managed 8 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. He and Mane will provide electric pace out wide that could give any defence problems. Other names include M’Baye Niang, Moussa Sow, Cheikhou Kouyate and Oumar Niasse.
Having only qualified for the tournament once before, many may have predicted Senegal to struggle in the tough qualification process. In reality, they did the opposite. African qualification sees 4 groups of 4 play each other twice (like the Champions’ League group stages) but with only the winner of each group progressing. Senegal secured 4 wins and 2 draws finishing unbeaten and conceding just 3 goals. Getting to the World Cup in such an emphatic fashion must surely build a confidence and unity within not only the camp, but the nation as well.
They clearly have the potential, but the draw could well have sentenced Senegal to an early exit. Instead they were placed in Group H alongside Poland, Columbia and Japan. The African side should certainly fancy their chances alongside larger, but underwhelming, opposition. An underdog mentality could be their biggest asset against regular World Cup participants, Poland and Columbia. On paper, Senegal may just have the best starting XI in that group.
I’m looking forward to watching this Senegal team play with an open, attacking style. They may get caught out on the big stage but I think they have what it takes to hit the tournament with momentum. They will, at the very least, be entertaining.