YEKATERINBURG, Russia — It is disappointing that in a sport full of African players at the highest level, there are just two African coaches at the World Cup: Aliou Cissé of Senegal and Nabil Maaloul of Tunisia.
Only Cissé’s team has won a game, with Senegal defeating Poland, 2-1, on Tuesday with a performance full of robust defense and contagious enthusiasm.
[Up Next: Follow our live coverage of Japan vs. Senegal]
Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, who attended the match in Moscow, has since returned home. But bigger opportunities await for Senegal, beginning with Sunday’s top-of-the-group showdown in Yekaterinburg Arena with Japan, whose coach, Akira Nishino, is well aware of the threat and the stakes: The winner of this match will be in an excellent position to qualify for the round of 16.
“The image we have of African teams is that they are very physical, and their physicality is superior, and we have to cope with that,” Nishino said. “We tend to think of that first, but this Senegal team in addition to their physicality and individual speed, they are also very organized.”
There is a touch of the patronizing in this, and in Nishino’s comment that in being “very well-disciplined,” Senegal is “different from other African teams.”
Three African nations have been talented and organized enough to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup: Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
None were coached by Africans, but Cissé was the captain of that inspirational Senegal side 16 years ago that upset the defending champion, France, in its opening game and then rode the wave from there.
“I think African teams and African players are disciplined,” Cissé said, calling the topic “a bit bizarre.”
“You cannot think that Japan and European teams are more disciplined than African teams,” he continued. “I think soccer demands discipline tactically and individually. I have great personnel who play on great clubs and in great leagues.”
For Cissé, the real challenge is continuity. “The majority of Japanese players play in Japan; the majority of our players are in other leagues,” he said. “It’s difficult to have the coherent approach the other teams have, but I think our team can quickly understand and do things correctly.”
After a playing career spent largely in France and England, Cissé has methodically developed his managerial skills, coaching Senegal’s under-23 program for two years and then rebuilding the national team’s lineup and bonhomie after taking over in 2015.
The Lions of Teranga, the team’s nickname, danced together after defeating Poland. On Saturday, they sang and danced together again in tight formation at the start of their training session in Yekaterinburg. Goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye led the group in what looked like a much sunnier version of the menacing haka performed by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team.
Standing nearby, with his arms folded and an amused look on his face, was Cissé, whose team has lost just twice in his three years in charge.
“We want to follow the same path that the generation of 2002 followed,” Cissé said. “I think they are two generations that are rather different in terms of development, background and mentality. But they are two great generations.”
They are the only generations from Senegal to qualify for the World Cup.
The country’s 2002 team, coached by the Frenchman Bruno Metsu, was based almost entirely in France, Senegal’s former colonizer, but the 2018 group is more widely dispersed. N’Diaye plays for an African club, Horoya AC in Guinea. The rest of the 23 players are based in Europe or Turkey, some with genuinely elite clubs like Napoli in Italy’s Serie A or like Liverpool, where Senegal’s star forward, Sadio Mané, was part of a front three with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino that scored at a whirlwind pace in both the Premier League and the Champions League.
Nishino repeatedly expressed concern on Saturday about facing Mané, even though he was not at his best against Poland.
“It makes me proud to hear people speak of me, but it’s also a trap to avoid,” Mané said. “As I’ve always said, the Senegal team is a community. We have a staff that is behind us and puts us in the right conditions. We are working well, and we have confidence. It was the community that won against Poland.
“And a special mention for the big boss sitting next to me,” he continued, looking at Cissé. “He was the one who did all the work and the strategy for weeks, and it worked extremely well. So I think if there is a plan anti-Sadio Mané, there’s no problem if the community is in good shape.”
With his dreadlocks and his intensity, Cissé, 42, has attracted plenty of attention online and off in Russia, but he looked embarrassed on Saturday when a Russian journalist asked him about his new sex-symbol status.
“I don’t think I’m a sex symbol at all,” he answered. “There are millions and millions of Aliou Cissés in Senegal and the world.”
According to two surveys, Cissé is the lowest paid of the 32 coaches in the World Cup, at an estimated 200,000 euros per year (about $233,000). That is quite a drop-off from German Coach Joachim Löw’s 3.8 million euro salary and quite a distance from the reported 1.5 million euros per year going to the highest-paid coach of an African team — Hector Cuper, an Argentine who manages Egypt, which already has been eliminated in Russia.
“The wage differential is rather embarrassing, but many African federation officials believe that paying Europeans and South Americans more than Africans is the only way to attract them,” said Peter Alegi, a professor of African history at Michigan State, who has written extensively on African soccer. “Perhaps higher wages to white outsiders also injects a sense of power and status among African officials.”
Foreign coaches have been integral to African soccer from the beginning of the World Cup. In 1934, when Egypt became the first African nation to participate, James McRae, a Scotsman, was the manager. When Morocco became the next African team to participate — in 1970 — the coach was Blagoje Vidinic of Yugoslavia.
There has been resistance to the approach. Tanzania banned foreign soccer coaches in 1975, only to relent eventually.
Foreign coaches are certainly part of the developing soccer landscape elsewhere, including in the United States, where the former German star Jürgen Klinsmann coached the men’s national team from 2011 to 2016. But the phenomenon is particularly pronounced and sensitive in Africa.
Philippe Troussier, one of several nomadic Frenchmen who made a reputation coaching multiple African teams, often said that a foreign coach had the advantage of being seen as a neutral, a mediating force on a continent where many countries are riven by internal conflicts.
But there is also an element of lingering bias, a sense that European or South American coaches remain inherently superior even if a coach who shares his players’ background might be better able to reach them.
“Cissé has demonstrated how effective local coaches in Africa can be if given the time and opportunity to succeed,” Alegi said. “Unfortunately, too often shortsighted federation officials seek a white European outsider as a way to protect themselves in case things go wrong on the pitch.”
But with the surge in Africans playing in major European leagues, which began in earnest in the 1990s, there are evermore retired African players with undeniable stature.
James Kwesi Appiah coached Ghana at the last World Cup, in 2014, and is back in charge. Stephen Keshi coached Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup and died of a heart attack in 2015, not long after his contract was not renewed. Keshi is one of several members of the 1994 World Cup team to have coached Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, along with Samson Siasia, Daniel Amokachi and Sunday Oliseh.
Yet at this World Cup, a German, Gernot Rohr, is managing Nigeria, which has accounted for the other African victory so far in Russia by defeating Iceland, 2-0, in Group D on Friday. The other African teams here — Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt — have yet to win or draw a game.
“Local coaches get little respect in Africa,” Cissé said in a recent interview with L’Équipe, the French sports daily. “We are lacking consideration. Keshi went through that. But we are capable of thinking, motivating a team, having a plan for the game. It’s not because I have dreadlocks that I’m a lightweight. That is a preconception. You can tell me I’m the worst coach in Senegalese soccer, but I am assuredly the one who wants to win the most.”