Long, long letter written by Kalidou Koulibaly on the eve of the World Cup which he will play as captain of his Senegal. A writing entrusted to The Player’s Tribune in which the former Napoli defender, now at Chelsea, also explains the reason that led him to choose Senegal and not France: “In the neighborhoods of immigrants in France, there really are two World Cups taking place at the same time. There is the World Cup on TV, and then there’s what you play on the street with friends. On TV, there’s the Senegalese team, the Turkish team, the Tunisian team, the Algerian team. And then there’s the Senegalese neighborhood team , the Tunisian neighborhood team, etc. During a normal summer, the neighborhood is a beautiful mix of cultures, languages and friendship. If you’re the only one lucky enough to have a PlayStation, it becomes the “Neighborhood Playstation”. If you go to the park and all the mothers are sitting on the grass eating ice cream, you don’t just go and give a kiss to your friend’s mother, you kiss them all in a row.
Everyone is different, therefore everyone is the same: do you understand? Not just every four years for the World Cup, you represent your flag every day. Even when you were playing on the road you were playing for your parents’ or grandparents’ country as if you had really been called up to the first team. And if it happens that Senegal really play against Turkey in the quarter-finals of a World Cup, as in the summer of 2002? You anticipate the game and do the “game before the game”, as if real life decides. Even if you play five behind your school, it’s Turkey against Senegal. It literally decides fate.
I remember we played this match with my friends before the quarterfinals. We lost to the Turks and it looked like someone died. We argued among ourselves for making mistakes, we held back tears, we collapsed on the ground. In our world, a group of 11-year-old children in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges had failed the entire nation of Senegal.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but it’s not. The World Cup is something different. A friend of mine reminded me the other day that we were so eager for Senegal to win the quarterfinals that we even tried to do some “magic” before the match. We received a large flag of Senegal from someone and put it on the prayer table and bowed down to God to beg him to help the Lions of Teranga defeat Turkey. God received many such prayers that day, I’m sure.
Of course everyone knows what happened. Senegal lost on golden goal and we all cried. But I always tell people that the amazing thing about my neighborhood was that after our tears dried, we were really happy for our friends. One of my best friends was called Gokhan, and his parents fed me just like my parents fed him. At his house I ate kebabs. In mine he ate the mafé de poulet. So, once Senegal got eliminated, I rooted for Turkey with my heart.
Sometimes people ask me why I chose to play for Senegal instead of France. “Kouli, if you had chosen France, you could have become a world champion.” Maybe, but I believe in destiny. I always say that they are the fruit of two cultures: the French and the Senegalese. I am very proud to be French. But for me to represent Senegal was decided by God’s plan. There is something inside me since 2002 that pushes me towards that destiny. I remember when Aliou took over the team in 2015, he called me and said, “Kouli, we are entering a new cycle and we need you. You have to come with us.”
He took a risk on a 24-year-old who was still on the bench for Napoli. He believed in me. So I had to believe in Senegal. When I called my parents to inform them of my decision, it was the only time in my life that I saw them enthusiastic about football. They usually act like you’re still playing in the school playground. But when I called my father on FaceTime and told him I was going to represent Senegal, I saw the light in his eyes, in the eyes of a man who worked tirelessly as a skilled worker in a sawmill – seven days a week for five years. – to be able to give a better life to her children in France. It takes a lot to get the Boss excited. But that day his eyes shone. Representing my country is not just about a football match. It’s about my blood, my history and my parents’ dreams.
I will never forget the day I became captain. It’s a good story, it says a lot about our team and how united we are. When coach Aliou chose me to replace Cheikhou Kouyaté, I had a few doubts at first. Cheikhou is a great person who I’ve known since I was in Belgium, and I was worried about how he would react. I remember we were at the hotel and I gathered a council of older players: Idrissa Gana Gueye, Sadio Mané, Édouard Mendy and Cheikhou. I told them I would only accept the sash if they all agreed. Some things have to remain private, but what I can tell you is that Cheikhou came to me that night and he said, “I have a lot of respect for you, because you came to me as a man. I want you to have it”. If I wanted to describe Senegal and our mentality in one word that would be ‘Cheikhou’. Even today I call him ‘Captain’.
For me, this is what it means to be Senegalese. You respect history and elders. I don’t know how they do it in other national teams, but whenever there is a difficult decision, I gather the advice of Iddi, Sadio, Édouard and Cheikhou. We have lived everything together in recent years: the good emotions and the bad ones. That’s why I say the African Cup of Nations final was not a game. It’s been 20 years of history. Generations of people dreamed of Senegal lifting a trophy, and it always ended in disappointment. There was immense pressure, yes. But I felt it was destiny. I knew it in the first five minutes of the match, even after Mané’s penalty save. I know it sounds weird, but it wasn’t the fact that mattered. It was the way Sadio reacted. He didn’t feel defeated. He immediately threw his arms up in the air towards all of us, I saw the fire in his eyes. Sadio is pure spirituality. His charisma is something special. When he looks at you, it seems like he can see inside you and understand how you are feeling. From a sporting point of view, he is a champion. But above all he is a friend, a brother, in the truest sense of the term.
I knew that two hours later he would come forward to take the final penalty and that he would score. Grown-ups don’t make mistakes twice. If you go back and watch the video before Sadio kicks the ball, you can see how confident I am. There are nine of us in the center circle waiting for him to kick it. You see eight guys on their knees, hands outstretched, praying to God, and then there’s me, standing completely still, like I’m relaxing. I knew he would score. No doubt. I was just waiting for the ball to hit the net. It hit her perfectly. Poum. We were African champions. We all started running. The sweetest feeling in the world.
I remember being called to the podium to get the trophy by FIFA President Infantino and due to COVID regulations my team mates couldn’t get on. It was just me, and he wanted me to lift the trophy with the cameras. Luckily, having played in Naples, which has truly become my home, I speak fluent Italian. I said to Signor Infantino in Italian: “No, no, please let me go and lift the trophy with my teammates on the field.” I accept. I also remember that, in the beginning, I tried to give it to Aliou to lift, because he started this journey 20 years ago. But he said right away, “No, I’m happy to watch. You lift it”. When we lifted the trophy in the air, it was one of the greatest sensations of my life.
How many kids had the flag on the prayer table, begging for that moment to happen? You think about things like that when you’re on the plane home, taking the trophy back to Senegal. But when you’re in the bubble, you can’t imagine how many people you’ve touched. Just look at the photos and messages on social media: what does it mean for the country? It’s just a game, after all. But when we landed in Dakar, we saw what that meant. It is indescribable.
You cannot imagine what that day was like. The rich, the poor, those of different political sides were all brought together that day. It was a moment of pure joy for millions of people. Yes, some people may say “it’s just the African Cup of Nations” but they don’t know anything. For me it is even more significant than winning a World Cup with France, Germany or Brazil. When your story is this, the emotion is very different.
As Aliou reminds us, every time we put on the Senegal shirt, we’re not just playing. We are ambassadors of a wonderful country, a country that many people don’t know enough about. In this World Cup we want to create our “2002 moment” for a new generation of kids, not only in Senegal but for Senegalese people all over the world.”