Emotions will always run high after qualifying for the knockout rounds of international football’s most important tournament, especially for an African nation doing so for only the second time in their history.
But Senegal’s collective performance to finish in the last 16 at this year’s World Cup, after beating Ecuador on Tuesday and finishing second in Group A, held greater significance overall.
The hard-fought success, sealed by a terrific volley from Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly – the perfect moment to score his first international goal – fell on the second anniversary of the death of one of Senegalese’s greatest footballers of all time, former Fulham and Portsmouth midfielder Papa Bouba Diop.
Diop tragically passed away in 2020 at the age of just 42. Many fans in the crowd wore shirts or painted their bodies with his number 19 on the back, while Koulibaly also wore a modified captain’s armband with the 19 as a mark of respect.
After the game, Diop was the focus of all thoughts.
“It’s an amazing moment for me and the team,” Koulibaly said of receiving the Man of the Match award. “It was a difficult draw and we lost the first game. It was one of the most important moments of the team.
“I’m happy (to win Man of the Match) but the whole team deserves it. The trophy is for dad, it’s the anniversary of his death, I’ll give it to his family.
“The anniversary of his death was important to us and to his family. We wanted to make him proud. He was an inspiration to me. We wanted to play in his honor. We didn’t want to miss that. We have to show why we are African champions.”
The fact that it was such a team effort from Senegal on a momentous day added further luster to an event that many will never forget.
When all-time top scorer Sadio Mane withdrew from the squad on the eve of the tournament, it was a blow to the African champions who many thought would find it difficult to come back.
But in the absence of the Bayern Munich striker, goals have flown from all directions, not relying on one player like many other nations.
Senegal had five different goalscorers at this World Cup – Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhiou, Bamba Dieng, Ismaïla Sarr and Koulibaly – their most in a single edition of the tournament, surpassing their 2002 tally.
“We are a family and a well-oiled machine, so we wanted to give back this gift to the Senegalese people and to Senegalese around the world,” Koulibaly added.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard about his (Manes) injury. I knew there would be a lot more pressure but we are a team. Yes, Sadio is a star and he is the symbol of Senegalese soccer team and sometimes we play for him but there are XI players on the soccer field.
“We have some other great players and this is their time to shine.”
On paper, England will certainly have a chance against a maneless Senegal in the Round of 16, but in knockout football, where games are so often decided by a goal, a side that hit as a unit certainly won’t be a weakling.