AL KHOR, Qatar -- As captain, Aliou Cisse led Senegal to victory over the defending World Cup champions and all the way to the quarterfinals, matching Africa's best run in its first appearance at the tournament.
As coach, Cisse is finding the World Cup much, much tougher.
The current African champions lost to England 3-0 on Sunday in a surprisingly lopsided result and were knocked out in the last 16.
Senegal had arrived with high hopes of at least matching that quarterfinal run of two decades ago, even without injured forward Sadio Mane, but was stopped by a ruthless performance from England.
“We just weren’t as good as we should have been,” Cisse said. “But I am not trying to make excuses. We have worked for years to be the best African side but now we were playing a team in the top five in the world and I think you saw the difference.”
Cisse has been a pivotal figure for Senegal at every one of the nation's three appearances at the World Cup — captain in 2002, coach in 2018 and this year.
That team in 2002 beat defending champion France in the tournament's opening game in a result still seen as one of the World Cup's biggest upsets. Senegal went on to become only the second African team after Cameroon in 1990 to make the last eight.
But Cisse's return as coach of Senegal resulted in his first bitter experience of the World Cup in 2018, when the team was eliminated in the group stage on a fair play rule because it had picked up more yellow cards than Japan.
In Qatar, there was a pre-tournament belief that Africa’s top-ranked team would be a dangerous opponent for anyone considering the depth of the squad, and because it finally fulfilled its promise by winning its first African Cup of Nations title in February.
The incident that might have had the most impact on Senegal’s hopes came two weeks before the World Cup started, when Mane slipped to the ground in a German league game with an injury to his right leg. It ruled Senegal’s all-time leading scorer and the driving force behind its recent success out of the World Cup, forcing Cisse to change much of his game plan with hardly any time.
Clearly hampered by the absence of Mane’s attacking threat up front, and also without key midfielders Idrissa Gueye (suspended) and Cheikhou Kouyate (injured), Senegal’s challenge faded away against England.
Senegal missed Mane “greatly,” Cisse said, but he also admitted his defense struggled badly against England and gave an honest assessment of how far his team still had to go to compete with the best in the world.
“I wasn’t expecting to let in three goals,” he said. “We’re at the World Cup here so you face the best teams in the world. One of the big five at world level.
"You pay for any mistake you make and any mistake we made tonight we paid for. Senegal has to keep working.”
Senegal may also have to finally face up to going to a World Cup without Cisse. It's never happened before.
But while Cisse has extended his coaching contract to 2024, when Senegal will defend its African Cup title, he hasn’t committed to the 2026 World Cup. He said Sunday he wasn't sure how long he'd stay now.
“We’ve just lost a game and been knocked out the tournament," Cisse said, "and I need to draw the lessons and then we’ll see.”
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