Sadio Mane was the 'quiet kid' with the superstar talent
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — One fan thumped his chest with his fist. Another raised a Senegalese flag high in the air. Around them, hundreds of others shouted, jumped and darted about in wild celebration. Sadio Mane had scored.
It didn't matter that Mane's goal was for Liverpool, not Senegal. Nor that his club would lose to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
"He's our leader," said Samba Ndiaye, 27, who wore a $5 knockoff "Mane" Liverpool jersey to the Champions League final viewing party at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. "He scores, but he also does things on the field that no one else does. He can make the difference."
Mane, who left a rural village in southern Senegal as a teenager to find international stardom in Europe, hopes to defy the odds again at the World Cup in Russia.
Senegal has waited 16 years since its World Cup debut, when the 2002 team famously defeated defending champion France on the way to a quarterfinal finish. Now, the West African nation is expecting its shy 26-year-old superstar to take Senegal to even greater heights.
While Mane's club career sparkles — he's the highest-scoring Senegalese player in Premier League history — national team results have been mixed. He impressed at the 2012 Olympics, missed the penalty that sent highly rated Senegal home from the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in a shootout in the quarterfinals, then bounced back to help his country qualify for Russia.
Senegal plays Poland, Japan, and Colombia in Group H at the World Cup, which Mane described as "a tough group." He downplays talk of being the main man for Senegal, which is captained by midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate.
"The main man all the time is the team, so for us the collective is more important," Mane said.
The 5-foot-8 winger also said he doesn't feel pressure.
"Honestly, I don't know the word pressure, because football is my job. I always enjoy it," he said.
Mane was a scrawny 15-year-old boy when he joined Generation Foot, a Senegalese academy whose partnership with Metz in France gives top prospects a shot at European soccer.
He showed speed and skill in his tryout. But Mady Toure, Generation Foot's founder and president, also liked Mane's focus.
"He was so sure of himself," Toure said in an interview with The Associated Press outside the national stadium in Dakar after a recent game. "Sadio's success doesn't surprise me."
Mane's determination also saw him succeed despite his father's threats.
In an emotional 2017 interview with former French international William Gallas, Mane said his father was furious at him for playing soccer while ignoring school.
He was 18 when he left Dakar for Metz in northeast France on a trainee contract. Only the best earn pro deals, the rest go home. As if that wasn't stressful enough, he arrived with a groin injury and had to either play through the pain or have surgery.
"He was really limited by it. It had to be fixed," said Toure, who regularly visited Metz and urged Mane to get surgery.
Mane recovered and spent several months training with the Metz reserve team. Soon, the senior squad coaches took notice.
"His technique, his attacking, his passing were rare for a player of his age," Patrick Hesse, who was the Metz assistant coach, said in a telephone interview. "His first touch is perfect. His control, his speed. It was incredible."
Kevin Diaz, a Metz midfielder at that time, said Mane impressed during his first practice with the first team. He described Mane's speed as "supersonic." Mane's professional debut was Jan. 14, 2012, when he came on as a substitute for Diaz.
That Metz side also featured a young Kalidou Koulibaly, Mane's French-born teammate with Senegal.
Mane had a strong performance at the 2012 London Games and transferred to Red Bull Salzburg. He moved to Southampton in 2014, and to Liverpool two years later, where he has been outstanding.
But club success, even scoring in a Champions League final, won't matter to the Senegalese if the World Cup ends badly.
"During the last African Cup, he was the leader, but something was missing," said Yannick Mandaba, a soccer analyst for Senegalese channel 2STV, which hosted the viewing party. "But with the season he just had, it's official he is the leader of the team."
Mandaba, a former professional goalkeeper in France who also works at Dakar's Sacre-Coeur academy, noted that Mane is "a quiet kid."
Mane is often described like that — quiet, shy, humble. He's not timid, but he's also probably not the guy to give the halftime speech.
Hesse, the former assistant at Metz, still keeps up with Mane's career and feels there's much more to come.
"I love following him. Each time he changes clubs, he improves," Hesse said. "At Liverpool, he's reached another dimension. He scored at Salzburg, he scored at Southampton, he's scoring at Liverpool, he scored in the Champions League. He's still improving. He's 26. He's not finished."