Emotions ran high as Senegal qualified for the knockout phase of the World Cup exactly two years after the death of Papa Bouba Diop, the player who kickstarted their 2002 run to the quarterfinals.
Kalidou Koulibaly wore a special armband with Diop’s number 19 and the players held a banner with a portrait of the midfielder after their captain’s 70th-minute strike sealed a 2-1 win against Ecuador and effectively sent them into the last 16.
Diop, who died at age 42, scored the goal in Senegal’s 1-0 win against France in the 2002 tournament and two in a 3-3 draw with Uruguay in their last group game.
“This victory and this (man-of-the-match) trophy are for the family of Papa Bouba Diop, this is a very special day,” an emotional Koulibaly told a news conference after what he said was one of the most important games of his and his teammates’ careers.
“We wanted to commemorate the great player he was, he’s a legend of Senegalese football, he made me dream, he made all of us dream so we could not mess it up on the anniversary of his death.”
Koulibaly, who spent eight seasons at Napoli before joining Chelsea this season, also sent “strength to the people of Naples, my second home,” who have been affected by the landslide on the island of Ischia.
Senegal was without its Sadio Mane, who was ruled out of the tournament before it started with a fibula injury, and the Bayern Munich striker was on his teammates’ minds.
“We also play for Sadio, he’s our star, our brother, we’re a family,” said Koulibaly before Coach Aliou Cisse also mentioned former coach Bruno Metsu, who led them to the quarterfinals in 2002, and died in 2013.
“I don’t forget all those who helped us be here today,” he said.
Koulibaly, however, quickly set the team’s sights on the next game. Senegal will face the winner of Group B, England.
“We’re not listening to what’s being said. We believe in ourselves, and we don’t intend to just go through the motions here,” Koulibaly said.
“Two-thirds of the world thought that we were done after Sadio got injured but the other third, us, Africa, had faith.
“After his injury, there was more pressure on the team leaders, but everyone stepped up. We fear no one, we are a good team with a lot of talent,” he added.
Cisse said that Senegal is used to playing make-or-break games.
“We’ve played so many important games, like the final of the African Nations Cup,” he said of Senegal’s victory against Egypt on penalties in February.