Defender Abdou Diallo says Senegal aim to do better than any other African nation by reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar.
No team from the continent has gone beyond the quarter-finals, with Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and most recently Ghana (2010) being eliminated in the quarter-finals – all after extra time or penalties.
Diallo said the African champions, who exited the 2018 tournament in the group stage, want to “shatter a glass ceiling” as they head into their third World Cup final.
“Even if we can’t see the future, you have to be convinced that you can definitely achieve it,” the 26-year-old Paris St-Germain centre-back told BBC Sport Africa.
“We also had a glass ceiling in the Nations Cup final and we broke it, so my dream is to break another one. If we achieve that, I will be the happiest.
“There are no complexes. If we don’t make it, we won’t make it, but you have to accept that pressure because it means we’re doing a good job.”
Senegal begin their Group A campaign against three-time runners-up Netherlands on November 21, before taking on Qatar on November 25 and finally Ecuador four days later.
The influence of the class of 2002
Two decades ago, Senegal stunned defending champions France with an unexpected 1-0 win on their World Cup debut.
The West Africans then drew with Denmark and Uruguay and beat Sweden 2-1 to reach the quarter-finals, before being eliminated 1-0 by Turkey after a golden goal in the fourth minute of extra time.
Considered the golden generation of Senegalese football, Diallo has fond memories of the famous team that played in South Korea and Japan in 2002.
“I get flashes of my dad lifting me in the air, I remember neighbors complaining about the noise,” he said.
Senegalese coach Aliou Cissé was part of this pioneering team, while other team members such as El Hadji Diouf inspired the current Teranga Lions squad.
“They are our big brothers, we grew up with them, we were always told about them,” Diallo said.
“This generation really inspired us and 20 years later we made it to the Nations Cup final again, won it this time and had our older brothers with us, celebrating as if they had it themselves. won. It was awesome.”
Former Lens and Liverpool striker Diouf was with the Senegal team in Cameroon, and Diallo says Diouf “remains a player” in spirit and brings positivity.
“I think he’ll be one forever. Whatever kind of game we play, he’s there,” he added.
“It’s good, it lights up and it’s a real [ray of] sun when it comes. He puts us in this state of mind: ‘You are the best, you will win’.
“We feel that he is behind us, he is also a close friend of the manager who was his captain. It is always nice to have our elders and to be united.
“Now it’s up to us [at the World Cup]. We have to write the history of this country and we will see where it takes us.”
‘Fathers were crying’ after Nations Cup success
After losing the 2002 Nations Cup final as captain and the 2019 edition as coach, Cissé finally led the Teranga Lions to first continental success in February.
The country erupted in celebration after decades of harrowing near misses to erase Senegal’s reputation as one of Africa’s underachieving footballing nations.
Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Dakar, with car horns honking and fireworks going off after the penalty shootout win over Egypt, but it took Diallo – the only man – a few months to play every minute in Cameroon – to really understand the impact. of their achievement.
“Being in Dakar and talking to people is amazing. I’m just starting to realize what happened in February,” he said.
“I’ve had dads tell me they’ve been made to cry, that they’ve never been through anything like this before. There’s real emotion.”
Diallo was born in France to Senegalese parents and represented the European nation at five youth levels before becoming Under-21 captain.
But, after winning 61 youth caps for France, he switched allegiance to Senegal and made his debut against Congo in March 2021, becoming a mainstay under Cissé.
“I always connect with my Senegalese past from quotes, books and strong personalities from the country that people told me about,” he added.
“But now I can finally see it being in the country more often. I think at some point everyone has to find their roots.”
Diallo “not perfect” but seeks to “tell the truth”
Diallo defies convention and shatters most stereotypes in football, having broken through at Monaco after spells with four youth teams at Tours.
He managed just 10 senior appearances during a four-year stint at the French club and spent one season each with German sides Mainz and Borussia Dortmund before joining PSG in 2019.
He is the co-author of a book called “The kick-off of our dreams” detailing his journey through Monaco’s youth, and also co-hosts a podcast called Balle Au Center (Ball in the Centre) with his friends.
“I am a footballer who allows himself to do whatever he wants,” he said.
“There are a lot of footballers who want to do it too, but the question is: do they dare? I dare because I don’t want to be limited and I do it in a very natural way.
Diallo says the world of football is “very complicated” but his podcast gives a glimpse of its reality.
“For a long time, the footballer’s communication was only to make people dream,” he said.
“But today, in the age of social media and because we’re closer to the public, you can tell them the truth.
“I don’t consider myself a journalist, but on some topics it’s about being free to express yourself and inspiring the younger generation, and also giving the world a more realistic picture of footballers and the world. soccer.
“You may like what I do on the pitch, but I’m just a man. I’m not perfect.
“I try to be an example. Am I? That’s another question. »