It is perhaps the most famously ambitious prediction about the future of African football which never saw the light of day – nor came anywhere close. It still hasn’t.
The year was 1974 when Pele, a three-time winner with Brazil, boldly forecasted an African winner of the World Cup by the year 2000.
In fact, 21 years into the 21st century, the furthest any African nation has been is the quarter-finals. One of the three teams to do so was a Senegal side which stunned the world back in 2002 in South Korea and Japan.
A Senegal side spearheaded by Sadio Mane lost in the final of the 2019 African Cup of Nations
This side have the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly (left) and Cheikhou Kouyate (right) leading them
Now, the country’s next generation of stars have their eyes on a deep run in Qatar next year.
They face Namibia twice within the next week in the second round of African qualifying, with the continent’s representatives in the 2022 World Cup boiling down towards five two-legged ties early next year in the third round.
Pele once boldly forecasted an African winner of the World Cup by the year 2000
Senegal are, undoubtedly, amongst the favourites to qualify. Why? The west African nation has landed their next generation of stars, in the midst of impressive careers in European football, and should be not be underestimated should they make it to Qatar.
Three years ago in Russia, led by Cheikhou Kouyate, the Senegalese were decidedly unfortunate not to qualify for the knockout stages. They finished joint-second in their group with Japan, but missed out by virtue of a poorer fair play record.
But Senegal, in 2002, are one of only three African nations to have reached the quarter-finals
In 2019, they reached the final of the African Cup of Nations where they disappointingly lost to Algeria in the final. They will hope to go one better in the New Year when the continent’s stars face off in Cameroon.
But the ultimate goal will be success on the grandest stage of them all. And what constitutes success? For this current crop, the knockout stages. But they will have their eye on another last-eight spot too.
Their squad is littered with stars, spearheaded by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. A loyal contributor to his country, Mane has scored 25 goals in 77 caps since making his debut in 2012 and will be in the team playing Namibia despite the inconvenience that will cause with quarantining on his return to the UK.
Edouard Mendy, Chelsea’s No 1, will have to undergo a similar fortnight. The Champions League winner gives his country something a lot of African countries don’t have: a first-class goalkeeper playing at the highest level.
Edouard Mendy, Chelsea’s No 1, is a first class goalkeeper who is aa big asset to his country
In midfield is PSG’s Idrissa Gueye, who has the most caps out of the current bunch with 80
Ahead of him in defence is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly – who has taken over from Kouyate as the captain – alongside PSG’s Abdou Diallo. As centre back partnerships go, not half bad.
In midfield is another PSG star in Idrissa Gueye. The ex-Everton man, who scored and starred in last week’s win against Manchester City, is their all-encompassing box-to-box player. Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy, or indeed Kouyate, are also workaholics to be utilised in midfield.
Then alongside Mane in attack you have Watford’s Ismaila Sarr, who has already registered 36 caps at the age of 23, and Villarreal’s Boulaye Dia.
All in all, it’s a first-class bunch of players, definitely the best player-for-player outfit in Africa.
Alongside Mane in attack you have Watford’s Ismaila Sarr, who has 36 caps to his name
Their manager is Aliou Cisse, who captained his country at the 2002 World Cup
Their target now is to achieve on the international stage – and to no longer live in the shadows of the class of 2002.
That side was, aside from hosts South Korea, the story of the 2002 World Cup.
They famously beat world champions France in their opening match, with Papa Bouba Diop – who sadly passed away last year – bundling in the game’s only goal from close range.
Draws with Denmark and Uruguay assured them of a last-16 tie against Sweden, who they beat 2-1 after extra time courtesy of a Henri Camara double.
Papa Bouba Diop bundles in from close range to give Senegal victory against France in 2002
The likes of El Hadji Diouf, who later moved to Liverpool, were heroes in their homeland
They then lost to Turkey, also after extra time, in the quarter-finals in Osaka. Nonetheless, a team of youngsters, many of who would go on to play at English clubs, were overnight heroes in their homeland.
El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao moved to Liverpool, Camara joined Wolves and then countless Premier League outfits, while Bouba Diop joined Fulham.
And who was their captain? Montpellier defender Aliou Cisse, who has been the national team manager now since 2015.
A good omen, one would think, for success in Qatar next year.
This Senegal side should not be underestimated if they make it to the World Cup next year
Assuming qualification is secured in the coming months, Senegal will not be a team to take lightly, with quality all over the pitch, particularly down the spine of the team.
Who knows? Should a favourable draw open up, maybe Pele’s prediction of yesteryear could finlly come true in the heat of the Middle East next winter.
SENEGAL’S CLASS OF 2002
GK – Tony Sylva
DF – Omar Daf
MF – Pape Sarr
DF – Papa Malick Diop
DF – Alassane N’Dour
DF – Aliou Cisse (c)
FW- Henri Camara
FW – Amara Traoré
FW – Souleymane Camara
MF – Khalilou Fadiga
FW – El Hadji Diouf
MF – Amdy Faye
DF – Lamine Diatt
MF – Moussa N’Diaye
MF – Salif Diao
GK – Omar Diallo
DF – Ferdinand Coly
FW – Pape Thiaw
MF – Papa Bouba Diop
MF – Sylvain N’Diaye
DF – Habib Beye
GK – Kalidou Cissokho
MF – Makhtar N’Diaye
In bold: Players who went on to play in England