At the time, the memory of Senegal's improbable run to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup—the first time that they appeared in the tournament—was still fresh across the country, even six years later. Senegalese fans revelled in the fact that in ...
Players on Senegal’s national football team, the Lions of Teranga, celebrate after their 2–1 victory against Poland, on Tuesday, at the 2018 World Cup.
Photograph by Michael Regan / FIFA / Getty
In college, I spent a semester abroad in Senegal. I went, as I think many black Americans do, in hopes of forging a connection with the continent that my ancestors had been stripped from several generations ago. What I discovered, instead, living in both the capital city, Dakar, and then in a small village in the rural south-eastern region of Kédougou, was how uniquely American I was. It can be cliché to say that soccer is the great cultural bridge, but sometimes clichés are so simple because they are true. The places where I found the most profound sense of kinship were the pickup games on Dakar’s beaches and in Kédougou’s dusty fields. In each game, players would pretend to be stars from the country’s national team. Because I was there following the 2008 election, and because of my lighter complexion, whenever I scored, people on the field would shout, “Nice goal, Obama!”
At the time, the memory of Senegal’s improbable run to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup—the first time that they appeared in the tournament—was still fresh across the country, even six years later. Senegalese fans revelled in the fact that in their first-ever match they had defeated France, the country that had colonized them until 1959, with a historic 1–0 victory. The match is the stuff of legend; most people in the country could tell you exactly where they were when Papa Bouba Diop scored the game’s lone goal. It took the Lions of Teranga sixteen years to make it back to the tournament, but, on Tuesday, in their opening match against Poland, they added another chapter to their fabled World Cup story.
Poland, led by the striker Robert Lewandowski, entered the match ranked eighth in the world. They were not expected to have a difficult time with the small West African nation. But Senegal took the lead in the thirtieth minute, when the Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueye’s twenty-yard shot deflected off the Polish defender Thiago Cionek’s shin and into the net. Somehow, this was not the most surprising moment. In the sixtieth minute, the Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, who was just inside the center circle, played a back pass to Jan Bednarek. Krychowiak, however, had not seen that the Senegalese forward M’Baye Niang had been let back onto the right side of the field by the referee, and was standing inconspicuously near the sideline. Bednarek had not expected the pass, and Niang sprinted toward the ball in several long, deceptively quick strides, reaching the ball before both the Polish defender and the onrushing goalkeeper. Niang, with a single touch of his right foot, split the two players and pushed the ball into the endless green space in front of him. With one more touch he easily pushed the ball over the goal line. Poland would manage a goal at the end of the match, but, after the whistle blew, Senegalese players gathered together and danced just as they did against France sixteen years ago.
It was especially moving to watch Senegal win on Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States. Gorée Island, which sits off the coast of Senegal, is one of Africa’s westernmost points, and is said by scholars to have been the final point of departure for millions of slaves. I remember standing in the frame of the infamous “door of no return.” I remember the smell of sea salt carried by the ocean’s mist, and remember being unable to fathom what such a scent might be like when commingled with the scent of hundreds of chained bodies herded into tight corridors. When I studied abroad, I was aware always of the distance between me and the Senegalese, no matter the shared bonds of heritage. Today’s victory, on a day celebrating the freedom of slaves whose ancestors might have come from Gorée, was another reminder of how this game that so many of us love can help to close that distance. And that felt like something worth holding on to.
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