Sadio Mane may only be 21, but he wears the No10 jersey with distinction and pride for Senegal, who will soon lock horns with Côte d'Ivoire over two matches for a berth at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. With the first leg set to take place on Saturday in Abidjan, took the opportunity to chat with the Red Bull Salzburg prodigy.

“They’re the best team in Africa, and it’s going to be very difficult, but it’s a great test for us, because if we qualify for Brazil, we’ll have to face major nations no matter what,” said the dynamic midfielder.

“There’s no need to motivate yourself when you’re playing against Côte d'Ivoire,” continued Mane, who was part of the Senegal side that was defeated by Les Elephants in the qualifiers for the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

“I’ve chatted with a few of my team-mates – everyone is really determined to do well. But we’re not looking at it as a chance for revenge; it’s just a case of playing in two huge matches that can lead us to the World Cup, which could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Few people would have imagined that the young boy who filled his days with “street football with friends” in his village in Senegal’s Casamance region would one day be this close to playing in the country that gave the world Pele, Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho – his idol – and competing in FIFA’s flagship tournament.

Mane’s parents, who wanted him to knuckle down and study, certainly did not envisage things turning out the way they have. “My family didn’t think much of me playing football and weren't convinced I was going to make it, because other kids from our village had tried before me and failed,” he explained.

Rapid rise
The skilful playmaker would eventually make it, however. Confident in his ability to forge a path in the game, he announced his desire to leave school at the age of 15, a request to which his parents reluctantly agreed. Supported by his uncle, he moved to the city of M'bour, located to the south of Dakar.

“I spent a few months there, taking part in local tournaments. That’s when I heard about Generation Foot, a youth academy in Dakar. I sat the entry tests and was asked to join,” recalled the youthful African.

While there, he attracted the attention of Olivier Perrin, a youth coach with French outfit Metz. Les Grenats enjoy a special relationship with the Dakar academy, and Perrin was able to arrange a move to France for Mane. After taking a few months to settle in, he was promoted to the first team and made his Ligue 2 debut.

He swiftly became one of the first names on the teamsheet at Stade Saint-Symphorien, as well as for the Senegalese senior national and Olympic teams, representing the latter at London 2012.

“It was my first big tournament. There was a lot of pressure, and although I gave my all, I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped to,” he said modestly, recalling the African nation’s run to the quarter-finals, where they took future champions Mexico to extra time. 

Despite this premature exit, the performances of the explosive No10 had piqued the interest of scouts across Europe. “Metz didn’t want to let me go, but after the Olympic Games, there were quite a few clubs after me. The chairman refused every single offer until Salzburg’s, which was impossible to turn down.”

To the great disappointment of supporters in Lorraine, Mane packed his bags for Austria. “The domestic league is not as strong as in France or in other major European countries, but given how young I am, I thought that it would be an ideal club in which to work, learn and improve,” he said.

Palpable progress
And improve he certainly did. His alertness, improvisational skills and clinical finishing saw him establish a place in the Salzburg midfield and win over the Red Bull Arena faithful in the process. With 16 goals in 24 matches, he finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga scoring charts at the end of season 2012/2013.

On the international stage, meanwhile, Mane has come on leaps and bounds. He even came to Senegal’s rescue last time out, sending an entire country into raptures while simultaneously destroying the dreams of another.

His tap-in five minutes from time was enough for the Lions of Teranga to overcome Uganda 1-0 in Group J and advance to the African Zone’s final round of Brazil 2014 preliminary matches.

Coach Alain Giresse, who played in the same position as Mane, is a figure that Senegal’s rising star respects greatly.

“I talk to him a lot – he gives me great advice. After each match, he tells me what I did right and wrong, which helps me to improve. He encourages me to be more effective, as I’ve not been performing as well for my country as I do for my club. He also tells me to be more patient, more focused and more daring in front of goal. But I welcome constructive criticism. I’m only 21 and still have a lot of work to do.”