Who do you become in your darkest hour? What do you do when years of hard work end in failure? Do you place blame? Do you lose confidence? Do you walk away? Senegal’s football team have faced hundreds of those moments. Their modern footballing story, beginning in 2000 and stretching into the present, is full of them. It’s a story about leadership in times of crisis and supporting your chosen family through thick and thin. It’s a story about outcasts, and the incredible achievements they can deliver when given a handshake and a community. Mostly, though, it’s a story about teranga.
Teranga is hard to describe. It’s not quite a feeling, not quite an action; the BBC describes it as the “generosity of spirit and sharing of material possessions in all encounters – even with strangers.” For millions of Senegalese citizens, teranga is way of life. It’s the welcoming of visitors with open arms. It’s the sharing of love, food, and knowledge. It’s the living embodiment of inclusion and support.
It’s hard to know what football coach Bruno Metsu thought of teranga when he first accepted his job as the Senegalese national team manager in 2000. He’d just come off a wild coaching stint with Guinea, one littered with missed chances and broken promises. By all accounts he was starting to tire of the world of football. But Senegal welcomed him, and Metsu—a French outcast, a former player dropped after one game, a coach summarily rejected by his European brethren—found his footing once again.
Metsu’s work in Senegal “reinvigorated” him, he later told French newspaper La Voix du Nord. Whether teranga existed in his vocabulary or not, Metsu received it, understood it, and brought it to his Senegal team in spades. Senegal is a breathtakingly diverse country to begin with, and the Senegalese diaspora in Europe meant that its national team players hailed from cities as distant as Dakar and Dieppe. In this multicultural environment teranga became a crucial means of uniting a far-flung team. Metsu, himself a French immigrant, made it clear early on that there was no time for division, no need to whisper about who came from where. There would be no “other” in his squad. There would only be teranga.
Metsu’s secret? Let players be people. “I am not a cop,” he told the press. “Football is about joy. And I know what the players do in training and what they can do on the pitch. Call it leadership through radical acceptance: by reminding his players that they were allowed to have fun, Metsu helped them become more disciplined than ever. “We worked as hard as any team in the world in training,” he told Senegalese radio a few years later. “But you don’t have to be a great manager to send out a team in a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 or whatever because anyone can do that. By contrast, channeling everyone’s energy and strength in the same direction: that is something else. Motivating players, giving them confidence, making them mentally strong.”
Metsu and Senegal needed every ounce of that mental strength to make it through the dark days of the early 2000s. At the 2000 African Cup of Nations, Metsu’s first full tournament in charge, Senegal found themselves dumped out of the competition in the quarter finals by an unexpectedly ascendant Nigeria. When the tournament rolled round again in 2002, Metsu and Senegal had two goals: beat Nigeria, and win the whole damn thing. Senegal did deliver a heaping dose of payback to Nigeria by knocking them out in the quarter finals in extra time. The tournament final, however, against a talented Cameroon side, was not so sweet. The game was a tense affair and it wound up going to penalties. A frustrated and nervous Diouf missed his shot. In the last kick of the game, captain Aliou Cisse, a quiet, thoughtful defensive midfielder, missed his too. Cameroon were victorious. Senegal were heartbroken.
It’s fascinating to look back on that game now; to realize what was coming for all these players as a direct result of their AFCON failure. Because just a few short months later was the World Cup in Korea and Japan, and Senegal, for the first time in their history, had qualified. The defeated squad had mere months to pull themselves together and prepare for the tournament of their lives.
Metsu quickly needed to pick a World Cup captain. In a stroke of man-management genius, he stuck to his guns and retained the least likely candidate: Cisse. Cisse was not the most gifted player on that Senegal side, nor was he the most popular, and his last-kick failure against Cameroon could’ve set him up to be frozen out of the squad altogether. But Metsu saw what it would mean to his players to extend Cisse’s leadership opportunity anyway–that failure is an opportunity to learn, and that bouncing back is always possible.
Crucially, Metsu saw something else too: Cisse’s head-spinning intelligence. He was the kind of player who wanted to know the “why” behind every training and coaching decision, building up a huge neural network of tactical ‘if-then’ models. Metsu knew that no one would get more out of a captaincy than Cisse and he trusted that those who get will give in return. It was pure teranga, and it was brilliant. Cisse did not let Metsu down. The defensive midfielder maintained his position and even traditionally spiky players like Diouf respected his stoic authority. Metsu inherently understood that direction was superior to dictation, and that his next-gen leader didn’t need to be his carbon copy to be successful. Where one was loving and laissez-faire, the other could be disciplined and intellectual. Metsu, the empath, gave Senegal the freedom to enjoy matches. Cisse, the general, gave Senegal the gametime backbone to win them.
Senegal made up ground in the months between their AFCON defeat and their World Cup debut. They beat Ecuador on the road and managed a creditable draw with Guinea before taking off for South Korea and Japan. Their first opponent: the defending world champions, Les Bleus of France.
France, seeing Senegal as World Cup debutants, weren’t too concerned about the match. But Senegal viewed it as the perfect opportunity to show the world their mettle. France weren’t just world champions, they were Senegal’s former colonizer, and the tie carried heavy cultural context for Metsu’s men. “We were all believers,” midfielder Salif Diao recalled years later. “We all said it was too beautiful for us to come to this game and fail. All of the gods were with us. Our first game, our first World Cup, and we drew France?” He chuckled. “They way things happened, we couldn’t fail.”
The Senegalese team brought that energy to their preparations for the match. They were the only team in Korea/Japan to be completely open to the media; journalists could drop by their hotel at any time to chat with players and ask questions about the country and its culture. Several of those reporters noticed something curious: the Senegalese players weren’t really acting like imminent World Cup debutants. They were acting like friends at a sleepover. “We were there to have fun, no stress,” Diao shrugged. “How come we were not sleeping? Because we never felt stressed. We were very, very relaxed. It never crossed my mind that we were going to lose.”
When France and Senegal took the field a few nights later, there was still no stress in the Senegalese camp. France fielded a brilliant lineup featuring Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira. But they were nervous from the jump—tentative, brittle, and unsure. The BBC, in rather damning fashion, later called them “patient to the extent of being pedestrian.” Senegal, on the other hand, were anything but. They played a defensive 4-5-1 but burst forward within the first ten minutes to fire a warning shot past French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. With captain Cisse marshalling the team from the back of the midfield, they pushed forward with real bite, and they took control of the game’s pace.
France did manage a few solid attacks—David Trezeguet hit the crossbar in the first half and looked consistently dangerous down the center. But it was Senegal who sealed the match, with Papa Bouba Diop breaking through in the 30th minute to slide a perfectly pitched shot into the French net. The crowd of 60,000 exploded. The French team, perhaps jet-lagged from travel, perhaps just caught off-guard by the strength of their opposition, could not fire back. As the final whistle blew the French players shook their heads in disbelief as the Metsu and his squad celebrated. The Lions of Teranga were happy, but they were not surprised. Diao had put it best: they were never going to lose.
The rest of Senegal’s 2002 World Cup run is now the stuff of legend. They made it all the way to the quarterfinals in what is still considered the greatest World Cup debut of the modern era. They didn’t do it through trickery, and they didn’t do it by sealing themselves off from the world. They did it through teranga. “When Senegal play, any guy who is maybe having a bad moment in his life…the day Senegal play, he is part of the team,”said Diao. And he would know: Diao committed an error that nearly eliminated Senegal in the Round of 16, but Cisse pulled Diao back from the brink and helped him put in a performance that won the game for Senegal and kept them moving. Their run was filled with small moments like that: mistakes followed by an arm around the shoulder, failure turned from fear into victory. It was alchemy.
Metsu left his post soon after the World Cup, and he died young just a few short years ago. But his belief in teranga, his decision to support his men in their lowest moments, bore the sweetest fruit. This year, Senegal made it back to the AFCON final. This year, their star player, Sadio Mane, missed a crucial penalty. This year, it didn’t matter. Senegal won. And who was the manager celebrating on the sidelines? Aliou Cisse, now one of the most respected names in African soccer. Cisse and Metsu remain just as different as they were in 2002. Cisse is still more of a taskmaster, with a hard-nosed training sensibility and an academic bent. But both men have always understood the importance of teranga, and both commit themselves to uplifting their footballing community.
The Lions of Teranga: Fierce, but generous. Uncompromising, but fair. Winsome, but empathetic. Cisse and his African champions will ride into Qatar this year hoping to leverage their unique culture for more World Cup success. It’d be foolish to bet against them. With teranga turning struggle to community and community to strength, it almost doesn’t matter what happens on the field. Regardless of the outcome, they will win. Together.