Out of the 32 teams competing at the World Cup, Senegal boss Aliou Cisse is the only black head coach in Russia as well as the youngest
Football is a young man’s game, but not when it comes to coaching. The average age of the head coaches at this summer’s World Cup is 56. As well as being the only black head coach in Russia, Senegal boss Aliou Cisse, 42, is also the youngest. He’s one of two African head coaches at the finals – Tunisia’s Nabil Maaloul is the other – and only the 14th African coach to oversee a side at a World Cup.
After a playing career that saw him represent sides in France and England, Cisse returned to Senegal to work with the country’s football federation. Similar to England’s Gareth Southgate, who was the coach of the England Under-21 team prior to his current role, Cisse coached his way up the junior teams, before taking control of the Senegal Under-23 side.
The former midfielder has been head coach of the senior team since March 2015. He captained the Lions of Teranga in the country’s World Cup debut back in 2002, where they progressed all the way to the quarter-finals, beating defending champions France in the process. That Senegal side was praised for their fearlessness, due in large part to Cisse’s role as captain and his energetic leadership. It’s also worth noting that three members from the famous 2002 team – Lamine Diatta, Omar Daf and Tony Sylva – are now part of Cisse’s coaching staff.
Cisse the man is revered in Senegal. “Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of him and get close to him,” said Senegal-based sports journalist Benjamin Tetteh, speaking to Sky Sports. “When you meet him you can see that he is a humble guy and a cool guy. He hasn’t allowed the success so far to get to his head and he has endeared himself to the public. Everyone has bought into what he is doing.”
Most importantly, the players have evidently bought into Cisse’s philosophy. Qualification for Russia saw them finish top of a group that included, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa. They also went the whole qualifying campaign unbeaten, scoring 10 times and only conceding on three occasions. The big names and personalities in the squad all know their role and have shown a type of togetherness that’s reminiscent of the famous 2002 Senegal side.
A clear example of the closeness within the camp was evident when Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye shared a post on IG upon finding out he was in Cisse’s final 23. “I’m happy to be part of the group… it’s an honour and a pride for me to represent my country Senegal. Big thought to my team-mates who are not in the list, especially to my soldiers Pape Souare and Oumar Niasse.”
That type of team spirit and unity reverberates through a squad that includes the likes of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, who’s been identified as one of Europe’s most talented defenders; Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, arguably Senegal’s most important player after a wonderful campaign at Anfield; and young talent in the shape of Keita Balde who just completed an impressive debut season in Ligue 1 with Monaco after moving from Italian giants Lazio.
Cisse’s leadership attributes look to be rubbing off on his players as each of them seem to take great pride in representing their country, even star man Mane. “Mane has always rushed down as soon as Liverpool have made him available,” Tetteh explained. “And even when he has been injured, he has always wanted to come and watch.”
In this current climate where more conversations are being had about the lack of opportunities afforded to black coaches and managers in the game, how does Cisse view the landscape for African coaches? “If there were more African trainers with African teams, the probability that we could demonstrate our competences would increase,” he said, speaking to World Soccer.
“It remains to be seen whether our under-representation is due to a lack of information or a lack of openness from other federations. It is a question that deserves to be explored in depth.”
Cisse has over four years of top-level coaching experience under his belt and with this latest run with Senegal, the 42-year-old is only upping his credentials as a coach. How revitalising would it be to see a figure like Cisse gracing the dugout in one of Europe’s top leagues? Ligue 1 side Nice recently announced the managerial appointment of France legend Patrick Vieira, a move that makes great sense for all involved.
One hopes clubs up and down Europe will not only be keeping an eye on the Senegal players in Russia, but also their young and gifted black coach.
Words by EugeneOEA