An expertly executed volley from Chelsea centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly sent Senegal through to the last 16 of the World Cup for only the second time in their history after a 2-1 success over a heartbroken Ecuador.
With the Netherlands cruising to victory over Qatar to seal top spot in Group A across Doha, Senegal knew they had to win to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 2002, where the winner of England’s group will lie in wait.
At the start of the tournament, the withdrawal of all-time top goalscorer Sadio Mane was the moment many believed Senegal’s World Cup 2022 campaign would start to unravel, but other Premier League players past and present saw them over the line, with their colourful supporters unable to contain their emotions on the final whistle.
You don’t get a more awe-inspiring spectacle than Ecuador against Senegal at a World Cup. Despite the exorbitant costs of travel, both sets of supporters headed to Qatar in great numbers, wearing all manner of costumes and making all manner of noise.
A quick scan around the Khalifa International Stadium – a relic compared to the rest of the newly built venues in Qatar having been constructed in 1976 – ahead of kick-off was quite the sight, with very few concentrating on the action. The drums led the Senegalese dance, while a sea of yellow was more concerned with singing “yes, we can” in each other’s faces as they too dreamt of a second-ever World Cup last-16 qualification.
The fixture was unchartered territory for Ecuador. They had never played an African team at the World Cup before and looked like they had skipped their homework early on as Senegal really should have taken the lead in the opening stages.
Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye flashed an effort wide from a perfect position inside the penalty area, Boulaye Dia dragged his shot across goal when he should have at least hit the target, and Ismaila Sarr curled a fizzing effort over the top.
It remained one-way traffic, with a patched-up Enner Valencia, joint-top goalscorer in the tournament coming into the contest, unable to get a touch of the ball.
The goal that gave Senegal a deserved lead came via a familiar face: Watford striker Sarr was upended in the penalty area by Ecuador’s Piero Hincapie, before getting up himself, snatching the ball off teammate Iliman Ndiaye and slotting the spot-kick coolly into the bottom corner.
Ecuador needed some inspiration, and their midfield talisman, Brighton’s Moise Caicedo, very much the heartbeat of the team, popped up with a crucial equaliser from a corner in the 68th minute, silencing the drums for the first time in the match.
The Senegalese percussion section had to regain their composure quickly, however, as less than two minutes later, yet another player based in England, Koulibaly, expertly volleyed Senegal back into the lead, again from a corner. The Khalifa beat had been restored.
It was no more than the African champions deserved, and they knew how deflating such a sucker punch for Senegal could be, with the celebrations, involving the entire team and substitutes exemplifying such.
Ecuador threw everything at Senegal late on, but they had given all their could and the lion spirit of Africa’s shining light shone through.
With the win, Senegal became the first African nation to beat a South American side at the World Cup since Cameroon’s success over Colombia in 1990, ending a 21-game winless run for the continent.
They are also only the third African team to reach the World Cup knockout phase in at least two different tournaments, after Nigeria and Ghana.
Whoever is next, England or otherwise, can be considered later. For now, Senegal, and Africa, celebrates.
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