lIt was a frigid night in East London, but Little Baobab, a nondescript Senegalese restaurant tucked away in a building in Clapton, was cautiously optimistic. Usually there are Senegalese musicians at the venue, often playing mbalax, a type of Senegalese and Gambian dance music. But tonight was all about football, with a crowd of around 40 largely hoping their team would reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup for a second time.
Khadim Mbamba, the restaurant’s chef, refused to sit down, leaning nervously against a chair at the very back of the room. “Some people have told me that Senegal only has a 15% chance of winning,” he said. “I would say 35%. However, I don’t think there will be many goals. 1-0 or 2-1 maybe.”
It is significant for Mbamba that the team is led by Aliou Cissé, a veteran of the famous 2002 campaign when Senegal defeated then world champions France.
“We were coached by French managers for so long. Now most African teams are coached by Africans. Every country has its own mentality. A Senegalese manager knows how to deal with the team and how to deal with the players.”
The Senegalese team is no stranger to grief. In the year of the 2002 World Cup campaign, the MV Le Joola, a ferry connecting Senegalese coastal cities, sank, killing 1,863 people. Eleven of them were relatives of Cissé, and his sister was among those killed. Two years ago, Papa Bouba Diop, the only goalscorer in that famous victory against the French, died suddenly at the age of 42. The players paid tribute to Diop ahead of their win against Ecuador.
Although their talisman, Sadio Mane, was badly injured before the tournament and former Paris Saint-Germain Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye was suspended, this is a Senegalese side with real quality – including goalkeeper Édouard Mendy and defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who both play for Chelsea .
Ndene, a teacher and friend of Khadim, said that for some players who are not playing at that level, taking part in the knockout rounds of this tournament is an opportunity to earn a move to a bigger club.
“Every team wants Harry Kane. But the young Senegalese players really want to prove themselves,” said Ndene. “There are some young players, 23 or 24 years old. Eliman Ndiaye [of Sheffield United] for example who plays in the Championship. He wants to play in the Premier League next year.”
Prior to kick-off, the Senegalese national anthem was hummed discreetly by only a few in the restaurant, but as it progressed more and more joined in, until by the time of the crescendo it was raucous, people were standing and booing the tunes. As the match got underway, the hall erupted in cheers and appeals to the referee, culminating in the video assistant referee denying Senegal a penalty after the ball was fired off the hand of England defender John Stones.
But the positivity faded from the room when England took a 2-0 lead in extra time in the first half. At half time, the mood was subdued, with the Lions of Teranga trailing 2–0.
Behind the projection screen showing the match, tantalizing smells emanated from stainless steel vats: little fried pastries called fataya, mafe peanut butter and vegetable stew, chicken yassa with onions, caramelized with lime. Customers lined up and the food restored some buoyancy.
Ashley grew up in Leyton and had been to Little Baobab before. ‘I usually watched an England game in the pub,’ she said. “But to come here, see the Senegalese culture and eat the delicious food – it’s a different experience.”
And there was still hope. Reuben is from Derbyshire, but lives in East London. “I am British through and through,” he said. “But I want an African country to do it right for once. I’m happy whoever wins, but now, with Ghana and Cameroon out, it’s all in Senegal.”
Michael, a Frenchman of Senegalese descent, was in good spirits. “Senegal were the better team. I think we have a chance to get back into it.”
But then it was that time again and England extended their lead through Bukayo Saka just before the hour mark. The mood was lost under the traditional Senegalese fabric flag line hanging from the ceiling. Some got up and left. The final whistle blew and the current African Cup of Nations holders were eliminated.
There was applause at full time. And then the mbalax started again, rhythmically and intensely cheerful.
“It was expected. Now I support France,” said Michael. So what’s next? “Keep Aliou as coach. Now we just look forward to the next African Cup of Nations… and win it again.”