Coach Cisse and Senegal: A Date With Destiny?

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Coach Aliou Cisse is carrying the memory of a terrible family tragedy.

Ondrive with Sham Samaroo
December 3, 2022

Upsets and surprises rain down in Qatar as we headed to the playoffs. Senegal, USA, Australia, South Korea, Morocco and Japan were chanting to Aretha Franklin’s All I’m asking is…a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Meanwhile Belgium, Mexico, Denmark, Germany, and Uruguay caught the early-bird flight home boo-hooing to Phil Collins’ Take, Take Me Home.

France and England appear headed for a semifinal clash. But before we get there, the Round of 16 promises much fireworks with France taking on a resurgent Poland and England, Senegal. Earlier this year, Senegal’s Sadio Mane led his country to their first Africa Cup of Nations title. He is also Africa’s Footballer of the Year 2022, and came in second to Karim Benzema in the 2022 Ballon d’Or vote. But Senegal are without their talisman, injured days before the tournament. Also, Coach Aliou Cisse is carrying the memory of a terrible family tragedy. In 2002, a ferry capsized in Senegal and 1,863 lost their lives, 11 of them Cisse’s family members including his sister, aunts, uncles, nephews and cousins. Cisse says the pain of that tragedy gives him strength to carry on, and the Lions of Teranga seem to have a date with destiny. Senegal qualified to the knockout stage for only the second time in their history. A former colleague of mine, Serigne Mbodj, hails from Senegal and like him, my wish is for this fairy tale to continue.

On Saturday, USA met Netherlands in the Round of 16. Prior to the game, I told soccer connoisseur, Anthony Ramcharan that USA was on a high and could pull an upset. Was I being overly optimistic? Perhaps, you see USA’s Tim Weah honed his skills as a youth player with my club, Blau Weiss Gottschee (I coached youth soccer at BW Gottschee back in the late 80s, early 90s). Of course, Tim came much later. Tim is a wonderful young man with enormous talent inherited from his dad, His Excellency, George Weah, President of Liberia. In the 90s Mr. Weah played for some of the finest clubs in Europe, PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea, Man City, and was the first, and to date, the only African player to win World Footballer of the Year. Unfortunately Netherlands, three-time finalist was a bridge too far for the young Americans who gave a good account of themselves.

Later on Saturday, Argentina eliminated a dour, ugly, and defensive Aussie team 2-1 to book a spot in the quarters and a meeting with Netherlands. In the stand was El Matador, Mario Kempes. Long before Messi or Maradona, Kempes was Argentina’s hero of 1978. El Matador scored twice in their 3-1 win over Netherlands, the first time Argentina lifted the Cup. Today though, it was Messi showing his entire repertoire to score in his 1,000th professional match taking his tally to 789. Messi is already his country’s all-time top scorer with 94 goals, and today’s strike took him pass Maradona in World Cup goals (9) for Argentina. If the seeds hold, Argentina will meet Brazil in the semis, a rematch of their Copa America final. But if we have learned anything so far at Qatar 2022, it is that nothing is a sure thing.

Except for a few sparks of brilliance, Brazil has been relatively quiet, surprising as they possess the most lethal attack in Qatar. Pedro is one of the most exciting players in the squad but was only given a few minutes in the third game against Cameroon. Coach Tite may need to loosen the reins a bit. His conservative style is stifling the Brazilian flair. My pal Anthony, a dyed-in-the-wool Brazilian fan, disagrees and thinks Brazil will lift the trophy for a sixth time. They certainly have the potential and the fire power to win it, but can they do it with the present formation. A win for the seleção would be welcome news for Pele. At press time, we are learning that the Brazilian legend is responding to treatment for a respiratory infection after initial, unconfirmed reports that he was moved to end-of-life care. Pele is also under care for colon cancer diagnosed in 2021. Everyone here in Qatar wishes The King a speedy recovery.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.