World Cup 2022: Senegal coach Aliou Cisse on impact of ‘Africa’s Titanic’

Aliou Cisse holds up the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in front of adoring fans
In a yellow shirt, coach Aliou Cisse – who has coached Senegal since 2015 – raises the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in front of adoring fans in Dakar in February

England and Senegal will meet for the first time at a World Cup as they face off in the round of 16 on Sunday (1900 GMT).

The West African team overcame an initial loss to the Netherlands with two victories against hosts Qatar and Ecuador to progress out of Group A.

Senegal hope to emulate their golden year of 2002, when they reached both their first Africa Cup of Nations final and World Cup quarter-final. Then there was little doubt as to the player in charge on the pitch.

Dogged, tenacious and hyper-professional, Teranga Lions skipper Aliou Cisse was present for all of their 12 games, save for one injury-enforced absence, and was the conduit for coach Bruno Metsu’s orders.

Rallying a team of such diverse individuals as El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga and Henri Camara among others was no easy ride for an individual prepared to accept the full load on his shoulders.

But just three months after the dizzying highs of a World Cup where they beat defending champions France and became only the second African team to reach the last eight, Cisse’s leadership qualities were required again – yet in the very worst of circumstances.

In late September, 11 of Cisse’s family members, including his sister, died in a ferry disaster, often labelled ‘Africa’s Titanic’, off the coast of The Gambia, which is surrounded by Senegal.

“This is the first time since the sinking that I have spoken about it in the press,” Senegal coach Cisse told BBC Sport Africa. “It was a very difficult time.”

“We must simply remember our dead and all those families decimated from the fathers down to the grandchildren.

“In fact, my main motivation in agreeing to this interview is to say ‘we are thinking of you’.”

He still feels the effects of the tragedy, which he says he could easily have been part of.

‘I was lucky’

On the evening of 26 September 2002, Cisse was just two months into life with new club Birmingham City and preparing for a game against Newcastle United two days later.

Around the same time, many of his relatives were boarding the Joola ferry at Ziguinchor, the city where Cisse grew up.

The Joola operated between a region known as the Casamance (which is also the home region of current Teranga Lions star Sadio Mane) in southern Senegal and the capital Dakar, so bypassing The Gambia, which sits in the middle of horseshoe-shaped Senegal.

Out of operation for a year for maintenance and repairs, the government-run Joola had resumed operation only two weeks before amidst great excitement.

“I loved the Joola – I knew it inside out,” said the man who masterminded Senegal’s maiden Africa Cup of Nations title earlier this year.

“I can’t even count how many times I took the ferry. Every time I came back home, I travelled to the Casamance on the Joola.

“I could have easily been on the boat too, so I was lucky.”

His relatives and nearly 2,000 others were not – in what became the second-worst peacetime nautical disaster in history.

The boat had an official capacity of 536 passengers but despite this, poor management by the authorities meant there were over 1,800 fatalities when the Joola sank.

Of these, 444 were children.

‘Sadness that will never go away’

Aliou Cisse celebrates Senegal's shock 1-0 win over defending champions France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup
Skipper Cisse celebrates Senegal’s shock 1-0 win over defending champions France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup

Unbalanced because of inefficient ballasting and overcrowded too, the Joola was in no state to survive the heavy storm that hit it just off the coast of The Gambia and after capsizing, it soon sank.

There were no working lifeboats or life jackets nor an effective radio system to call for help, meaning no rescue signal ever went out.

The communications were also horrendous for those seeking proper information about the boat, with some reports heartbreakingly bad in their inaccuracy.

“It was a day where we were all glued to the phone,” said Cisse, who won 37 caps for Senegal between 1999 and 2005.

“The waiting was the hardest part. It was tough to get reliable information.

“At one point people were saying it wasn’t true, that the boat had arrived – in those moments, you could catch your breath, only to be told 30 minutes later: ‘No, no, it’s not true, the boat still hasn’t arrived’.”

Eventually, tragic confirmation came through.

Yet Cisse did not tell anyone for a few days at Birmingham, the Premier League side he had joined from Paris Saint-Germain after the World Cup, as he did not want to “betray his state of mind”external-link to his new team-mates.

So he not only played against Newcastle, a game which ended in defeat, but also against West Ham a whole week later, which resulted in a fine 2-1 away win and endear him to the fans.

“As soon as we played the game, I flew straight back to Dakar to be with my family,” he explained, as he spoke to mark the 20th remembrance of the tragedy.

“My family really needed me, so I couldn’t be weak – they needed my presence. These were complicated days in a man’s life.”

Cisse’s natural leadership qualities were once again shining through, albeit this time in a ghastly nightmare rather than football’s biggest stages.

His stature as Senegal captain only enhanced the expectations people had for him, even though he clearly had his own unimaginable grief to process.

“I needed not just to be close to my own family but also my entire community, my neighbours who lost sisters and aunts. I needed to be there for them, try to give them a voice and be there in a moment of sadness which will perhaps never go away.”

Twenty years on, the Joola still lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 20 metres down, off the coast of The Gambia.

Victims’ associations have repeatedly called for the Senegalese government to lift the wreckage in order to further investigate what happened and bury potential bodies.

Yet despite being given the necessary funds to do so by the European Union, the government has failed to act, with critics claiming they fear what will be found in regard to further official errors.

“I think it’s normal that families want this boat to be raised and that they have answers to all their questions. If it helps them to find closure, their demands make sense to me,” Cisse said.

As Cisse – like all the rest – awaits the preferred response from the government, this leader is nonetheless spearheading Senegal’s presence in front of a watching world – as he tries to steer the country into considerably brighter waters in Qatar.

“We have to go there and represent not only our country, but also our continent, with dignity,” said Cisse, who was named Africa’s coach of the year in July.

Additional reporting by Babacar Diarra.

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