FIFA – Koulibaly: Senegal never lost our sense of belief

Senegal qualified for the round of 16 by defeating Ecuador 2-1 courtesy of a winning goal by inspirational skipper Kalidou Koulibaly.

In the run-up to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, a large amount of ink was spilled on the topic of Sadio Mane’s withdrawal from the Senegal squad.

Many observers were concerned that the team would suffer without his presence and leadership skills, but a booming volley from captain Kalidou Koulibaly in his country’s hard-fought 2-1 win over Ecuador on Tuesday evening dispelled any of those doubts, as Les Lions de la Teranga advanced to the last 16 of the tournament for only the second time in their history.

The former Napoli man was in the right place at the right time at the Khalifa International Stadium, restoring the Africans’ lead just two minutes after La Tri had levelled the game at 1-1. Much like Vincent Aboubakar in Cameroon’s 3-3 draw with Serbia on Monday, the robust centre-back led by example just when it looked like he and his team-mates had lost the momentum in the Group A decider.

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“This doesn’t change the fact that Sadio was a big loss for us – with him, there’s no doubt we’d be even stronger,” Marseille midfielder Pape Gueye told FIFA+ post-match.

“Kalidou stuck away a nice goal for us, and we knew that we had to keep fighting and not give an inch. We showed great mental strength, and most importantly, we held firm.”

When Mane’s injury status originally became common knowledge, fans wondered who would provide the influence and inspiration that the iconic striker usually brings to Aliou Cisse’s side.

While Koulibaly wears the captain’s armband and has one of the most impressive footballing CVs in the Senegalese squad, no-one could have foreseen what a decisive goalscoring role he would play.

“It’s fantastic, just fantastic,” said the French-born skipper right after the final whistle. “After our first match, it seemed like a lot of people thought we would get knocked out and have to return home after three games.

“But that was out of the question for us; we really wanted to make an impact, and today we played very well against a great Ecuador team who fought hard till the end.”

Even when asked about his crucial goal, the generous Koulibaly was quick to point to the collective nature of the victory. “We were really determined; we wanted to qualify so badly,” he said. “Even after the equaliser, we never lost our sense of belief and we managed to find another goal. We’ve qualified for the next round, and we can feel pretty satisfied.”

Senegal’s players, hugely excited about the challenges to come, now have the wind in their sails. Koulibaly long-awaited first international goal (after 66 appearances) has done more than just reaffirm his leadership qualities. “He’s our leader, our captain,” confirmed Ismail Jakobs, a relative newcomer to the squad. “Tonight he helped us through a difficult match – we needed him, and he stepped up to the mark. We’re delighted that he’s on our side.”

It goes without saying that Senegal will need the Chelsea defender to be at the top of his game again when they take on England at Al Bayt Stadium in the round of 16 on Sunday (22:00 kick-off, local time).

On Tuesday night, the only ink being spilled in Qatar was related to Koulibaly rather than Mane – and deservedly so.

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