Amadou Diop, who is known as the Boy Bandit in Senegal, is not surprised that his side has established itself as one of Africa's leading beach soccer teams. "In our culture, we used to play football in the street, barefoot. There were few real football pitches, so we played on the sand, not only on the beaches, but also on the corner of the streets, in the villages or cities. Today, most of our players come from this culture."
Unlike 11-a-side football, there is no professional beach soccer league in Senegal and the players are amateurs. It is something that Diop is hoping will change in the not-to-distant future. “We are working on it. It is a necessity to keep the momentum of our international achievements. I think that the success we have had with the national beach soccer team is quite paradoxical: we are among the best in Africa, but we have no national league."
Without a regular league, Diop has called-up several players who came through the ranks of playing regular football, and this has given him a good mix between ex-football players and beach soccer specialists. “The leaders of the team mostly come from ‘classical’ football, but every one of them is used to playing on sand."
Diop is confident that the side will be competitive in Tahiti. He considers their background and unity as the biggest assets of the team. "We have a strong group, with players who enjoy playing together. It is also an experienced group. Three of our players are about to play their fourth World Cup: goalkeeper Al Seyni Ndiaye, striker Pape Koukpaki and our captain, Ngala Sylla. Those players help us bring the younger ones to the level they need to be in terms of concentration and ways to approach games."
Aiming for breakthrough success
Two of Senegal's previous appearances on the world stage have seen the side advance to the quarter-finals. In 2007, they topped their group after beating Japan, Uruguay and Italy, before being defeated by France in the last eight. A year later they defeated host nation France in the group stage on penalties. However, an extra-time defeat against Uruguay saw the Africans miss out by the narrowest of margins, despite beating Iran in their last group match.
At the last finals in Italy two years ago, Senegal beat Switzerland on penalties, lost to the hosts on penalties and then beat Iran to go through to the quarter-finals, where they were knocked out by Portugal on penalties. Diop remembers the defeat against the Portuguese with some frustration. “We were the better side, but that is how it goes sometimes in football”, he says before adding that the team is eager to do better this time around. "We already reached the last eight twice. This time, we want to reach the semi-finals."
The coach, who was a member of the Senegalese national team and played for the Lions of Teranga in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, was a well-known midfielder during his playing days and captained the national side. Today he not only coaches the national Beach Soccer team, but he has also been in charge of Senegalese Premier League team ASC Diaraf. His assistant for the Beach Soccer team is Victor Diagne who was also a national team player and played professionally for Beerschot in Belgium.
The two coaches say that they will be well prepared once the tournament starts in Tahiti in September. Senegal, who qualified for the finals by virtue of winning the African qualifiers in Morocco in May, have been drawn into Group C, where they will face mighty Brazil, Iran and Ukraine. "We currently have three training sessions a week because there is Ramadan and some players fast. Sessions take place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then in August, we will play two friendlies in Dakar against Côte d'Ivoire. Then we will gather for a closed training camp. We planned things well with the FA this time. The program has been approved. If we keep focused, we can have a great World Cup. One important thing is to accustom ourselves quickly to the conditions in Tahiti. In a tournament, the first game is very important, so my boys will have to be good at adapting."