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By the time you finish this story, I will make you a Senegal fan. I promise you. Even if Senegal isn’t your first team at this World Cup, we are happy to be your second. We will adopt you, it’s no problem.
Why Senegal? Let’s start with the Africa Cup of Nations. (Every European manager’s favorite tournament.) It’s a funny story, actually. I have never said this before, but this is the truth…. At the end of extra time in that Final against Egypt, there was so much tension in the stadium in Cameroon that I was having flashbacks to being 11 years old. For me, as soon as the whistle blew and I knew we were going to penalties, it was not 2022. It was 2002.
When you are a footballer, you are usually “in the moment.” There is no time to be nervous. But this was a golden chance for Senegal to win its first major trophy. We knew the entire country was watching us, and they had seen so much heartbreak over the years. Remember when we went out on the Fair Play tiebreaker at the 2018 World Cup? Then we lost the 2019 AFCON Final the next year. It seemed like history never loved Senegal.
Even before the 2022 Final, when we had already won our match and we were all at the hotel watching Egypt win their semifinal on penalties, we were looking at their keeper and saying, “Man, we have to beat them in 90 minutes. This guy saves everything.”
Hahahah. Yes, it’s true. I would never say it to the press, but we were all saying, “Whatever it takes, we can’t go to penalties!!!!”
We could be the ones to rewrite history. We had the pen in our hand.- Kalidou Koulibaly
So of course we went to penalties. And when we were walking over to the touchline to talk with the manager about who would take them, I couldn’t help but have the same flashback that millions of Senegalese were having, watching on TV. In the back of my mind, I was replaying Turkey’s golden goal in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Then I was replaying the penalties against Cameroon in the 2002 AFCON Final. I’m looking over at our manager, Aliou Cissé, who was playing that day, and I’m thinking, “Man, even the big boss missed a penalty against Cameroon in 2002! Maybe we really are cursed!”
But then Aliou gathered us all in a circle, and he gave a beautiful speech that changed the whole mood. There is not much I can say about Aliou that will do him justice, because Aliou is Senegal. As boys, we all watched him give his life for the shirt. He used to put his head where others would only dare to put their boot. In that difficult moment, before the penalties, he told us not to be afraid. He told us to go and win it for our country, and for the generations of players who had sacrificed for that moment — from the 2002 team all the way to us.
We could be the ones to rewrite history. We had the pen in our hand.
After that speech, all our fears went away. I told him that I wanted to go first. As captain, I always want to take the burden on my shoulders. But the amazing thing was that Aliou looked at everyone and he said, “O.K., Kouli goes first. But all the pressure is on me, not you. I was the one who chose. I will answer for it. You guys just go and win it.”
So I walked to the spot. I stepped up to the ball. It was not just a penalty. It was not just a Final. There were 20 years of history in that one kick.
In the immigrant neighborhoods in France, there are really two World Cups happening at the same time. There is the World Cup on TV, and then there is the one you play in the streets with your friends. There is the Senegal national team on TV — the Turkish team, the Tunisian team, the Algerian team. And then there is the neighborhood Senegalese team, the neighborhood Tunisian team, and so on. During a normal summer, the neighborhood is a beautiful mix of cultures and languages and friendship. If you are the one guy lucky enough to have a PlayStation, it becomes the “neighborhood PlayStation.” If you go to the park and all the mothers are sitting around in the grass eating ice cream, you don’t go and kiss just your friend’s mother. You go “down the line.” You kiss every mother.
Everyone is different, so everyone is the same — you understand? But every four years during the World Cup? No, no, no. Now you are representing your flag. Now you go out into the street and play for your parents’ or your grandparents’ country like you have really been called up to the first team. Every morning, you go out and play the “game before the game.”
And if it happens that Senegal is really playing Turkey in the quarterfinals, like in the summer of 2002? Now you play the “game before the game” like it’s going to decide real life. Even if you are playing five-a-side behind your school, it is Turkey vs. Senegal. It literally decides fate.
I remember we played this game with my friends before the quarterfinal, and when we lost to the Turkish boys, you would have thought someone had died. We were arguing with each other for making mistakes, we were holding back tears, we collapsed on the ground. In our world, a bunch of 11 year olds in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges had let the whole nation of Senegal down.
Sometimes people ask me why I chose to play for Senegal instead of France.- Kalidou Koulibaly
You might think I am exaggerating, but no. The World Cup is something different. My friend just reminded me the other day that we were so desperate for Senegal to win the quarterfinal that we even tried to perform some “magic” before the match. We got a big Senegal flag from somebody and we put it on the prayer table and we bowed down to God to beg him to help the Lions of Teranga defeat Turkey.
God received many such prayers that day, I am sure of it.
Of course, everyone knows what happened. Senegal lost on a golden goal, and we all cried. But I always tell people that the amazing thing about my neighborhood was that after our tears dried, we were really happy for our friends. One of my best friends was named Gokhan, and his parents would feed me just like my parents would feed him. In his house, I ate kebap. In mine, he ate mafé de poulet. So once Senegal were out, I put all my heart behind Turkey.
That’s the beauty of kids, and of a World Cup. Everything becomes about flags and colors and songs, but not in a way that tears people apart. We dream of our homelands in a way that is positive. In my neighborhood, it was connected to the past and to family in a beautiful way. Sometimes, especially in an African family, it might be the only time you will ever see your father or your uncle cry.
Sometimes people ask me why I chose to play for Senegal instead of France.
“Kouli, if you went for France, you could have been a world champion.”
Maybe, but I believe in fate. I always say that I am the fruit of two cultures -- the French and the Senegalese. I am very proud to be French. But for me, representing Senegal has been God’s plan. There has been something inside of me since 2002, pulling me toward that fate. I remember back when Aliou took over the team in 2015, he called me and said, “Kouli, we’re going into a new cycle, and we need you. You must come with us.”
He took a chance on a 24-year-old who was still sitting on the bench for Napoli. He believed in me. So I had to believe in Senegal. When I called my parents to tell them my decision, it was the only time in my life that I have seen them excited about football. Normally, they act as if I am still playing a game out in the schoolyard. They are too familiar with the hardships of real life to be bothered by a game. But when I called my father on FaceTime and told him that I was going to represent Senegal, I could see the light in his eyes.
This is a man who worked nonstop as a skilled worker in a sawmill — seven days a week for five years — so that he could give his children a better life in France. It takes a lot to get The Boss excited. But that day, his eyes were shining. Me representing my country is not just about a football match. It is about my blood, and my history, and the dreams of my parents.
I’ll never forget the day that I became captain. This says everything about our team, and how close we are. When Aliou chose me to take over the armband from Cheikhou Kouyaté, I had a bit of doubt at first. Cheikhou is an amazing person who I’ve known since I played in Belgium, and I was worried how he would react. I remember we were in the hotel and I gathered a council of the older players together — Idrissa Gana Gueye, Sadio Mané, Édouard Mendy, and Cheikhou. I told them that I would only accept the armband if they all agreed. Some things have to stay private, but what I can tell you is that Cheikhou came to me that night and said, “I have a lot of respect for you, because you came to me as a man. I want you to have it.”
If it was anyone else but Cheikhou, it could have been a tense situation. If you want to describe Senegal and our mentality in one word: Cheikhou. That’s it. To this day, I still call him “Captain.”
For me, this is what it means to be Senegalese. You respect your history and your elders. I don’t know how they do it on other national teams, but whenever there is a tough decision, I gather together the council of Iddi, Sadio, Édouard and Cheikhou. We have lived everything together these last few years — the good tears and the bad tears.
That is why I say that the AFCON Final was not a game. It was 20 years of history. Generations of people had dreams of Senegal lifting a trophy, and it had always ended in disappointment. There was immense pressure, yes. But I felt like it was destiny. I knew it in the first five minutes of the match, after Sadio’s penalty was saved. I know that sounds strange, but it was not the miss that mattered. It was the way Sadio reacted.
He was not defeated. He immediately raised his arms in the air to all of us, and I could see the fire in his eyes. The ball went out for a corner, and he was shouting, “Come on!! Let’s go!!! Today, we break them!!”
When we lifted the trophy into the air, it was one of the greatest feelings of my life.- Kalidou Koulibaly
Sadio is pure spirituality. His charisma is something special. When he looks at you, it seems like he is able to see inside of you, and he understands what you feel. Sporting-wise, he is a fuoriclasse – a champion. But above all, he is a friend, a brother, in the most authentic sense of the word.
I knew that when he stepped up two hours later to take the final penalty in the shootout, he was going to score. The greats don’t miss twice. If you go back and watch the video before Sadio kicks the ball, you can see how confident I am. There are nine of us standing there in the center circle waiting for him to take it. You see eight guys on their knees, with their hands outstretched, praying to God, and then there’s me, standing completely still, like I am chilling.
Hahahah. I was definitely not chilling, but I knew he was going to score. No doubt. I was just waiting for the ball to hit the back of the net.
He struck it perfectly. Pooom. We were champions of Africa. We all took off running. The sweetest feeling in the world.
I remember I was called up the steps to the podium to get the trophy from Mr. Infantino, and because of the COVID rules, my teammates could not come up. It was only me, and he wanted me to lift the trophy with the cameras. Luckily, when I played for Napoli, it really became my home, and so I speak fluent Italian. I told Mr. Infantino in Italian, “No, no, please let me go lift it with my teammates on the field.”
He agreed, and he let me take it down to do the big celebration. I also remember that, at first, I tried to give it to Aliou to lift, because he was the one who started this journey 20 years ago. But he just said, “No, I am happy to watch. You go.”
When we lifted the trophy into the air, it was one of the greatest feelings of my life.
How many kids had the flag on the prayer table, begging for that moment to come true? You think about things like that when you’re on the plane back home, bringing the trophy back to Senegal. But when you’re in the bubble, you can’t really imagine just how many people you have touched. You see the photos and you see the messages on social media. But what does it really mean for the country? It is just a game, after all.
When we landed in Dakar, we saw what it meant. Words cannot describe it. We took a bus on the parade route from the hotel to the presidential palace, where we were supposed to have a party. Well, the party got delayed a bit! The route usually takes 20 minutes. But there were so many people in the streets that it took almost seven hours. It took so long, and I was so exhausted, that I literally was taking naps on the bus, and I kept waking up every 20 minutes to the screams of people shouting our names.
“Ehhh? Where am I? Is this a dream?”
If your team goes out, Senegal is happy to have you.- Kalidou Koulibaly
I would wake up and look out the window to thousands of people, shouting our names and dancing and waving the flag. I thought I was hallucinating.
“No, Kouli, we’re still driving.”
You cannot imagine how that day felt. The rich, the poor, those on different political sides — they were all brought together that day. It was a moment of pure joy for millions of people. Yes, some people may say, it is “just the AFCON,” but they don’t know anything. For me, it is even more meaningful than winning a World Cup with France or Germany or Brazil. When your history is heartbreak, the emotion is so much different.
As Aliou reminds us, every time we put on the Senegal kit, we are not just playing a game. We are ambassadors for a magnificent country — a country that many people don’t know enough about. At this World Cup, we want to create our own “2002 moment” for a new generation of kids — not just in Senegal but the Senegalese diaspora all over the world.
That 2002 team played so beautifully that even in defeat, they won. In my neighborhood, the Turkish and the Moroccan and even the French kids were shouting out the names of Diop and Diatta and Diouf and N’Diaye and Cissé and Camara and Fadiga. Maybe you had another team, but they were so cool that you could not help loving them, too.
Brothers and sisters, as I promised, there is a seat for you at our table. If your team goes out, Senegal is happy to have you.
That’s the best part of every good neighborhood, and it’s what we all love about the World Cup. We all have our flag, yes. But in every heart, there is room for more than one.