In one day, history was made in Senegal.
The streets of Dakar woke up early, anxious yet determined on Sunday morning, rallying behind their national football team competing for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon and ended the day in phenomenal jubilance.
In the 120th minute after the start of the game, Senegal’s star player Sadio Mane scored the winning penalty and accomplished the dreams of the West African nation.
Bets on the continent were split between Senegal and seven-time winner Egypt. Although coming close, Senegal had never in fact won any championship and Egypt was the continent’s most decorated team.
As dusk fell on Sunday, fresh memories of Senegal’s defeat by Algeria – a team similar to Egypt’s - in the 2019 AFCON were conjured up and relived in the streets as the game passed without a single goal being scored.
Throughout Dakar, match-watching was a communal, flamboyant affair. Thousands of fans bedecked in red, yellow and green flags and body paint gathered around giant screens set up in restaurants, landmarks and public squares.
The cards for glory were in Senegal’s hands and winning had become a sort of quest heretofore denied them. It was all too clear what a victory would mean.
‘’It’s the biggest moment in Senegal’s history, bigger than the 1960 independence. All the previous generations tried to win and failed. Senegal has always had some great players on its team and came close to the trophy many times, but never managed to get the title. And playing against Egypt, the challenge was bigger so the better the victory,’’ declared Hady Wehbe, co-founder of Football Senegal and consultant at the Real Madrid Foundation for Africa and Canada.
In the eyes of many spectators, the final narrowed down to a play-off between the two Liverpool players most famous in their home countries, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane.
Fans in Dakar fervently brandished Mane’s jersey and expected more action from him on the pitch. ‘’He’s been so discreet throughout the tournament, we were wondering whether he would show a different character in the final’’, commented Francois Goudiaby, a 33-year-old soccer fan in Dakar.
In the end, Mane scored the final penalty in a moment of sheer drama that left crowds in Dakar kneeling in prayer. Mane redeemed himself and his nation just as the stakes were highest.
From that moment, Senegal erupted in celebrations all night and the following day (declared a national holiday), as people came from all over the country to await the plane carrying the triumphant players home from Yaounde.
Millions lined the streets from the Leopold Senghor airport to the presidential palace to welcome the Lions of Teranga home with their trophy, an occasion they’d been waiting for 60 years. ‘’We dedicate this victory to the Senegalese people, because since Independence we’ve been chasing after this first star on our jersey,’’ exhaled the euphoric Alioune Cisse, the coach of Senegal’s national team.