MOSCOW — Nigeria lost its opening match. As did Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. And so a continent yearning for an early statement at this World Cup — and a long-promised rush deep in soccer’s ultimate competition after decades of underachievement — rested its last hope Tuesday on a team known as the Lions of Teranga.
Teranga means hospitality in the Wolof language, but in a broader sense, the word represents Senegalese character and pride.
Sixteen years had passed since the Lions last strode onto the global stage and, like they did in South Korea and Japan, they filled the soccer-loving hearts of Africa — and particularly those in the western region — with a stirring introduction.
This 2-1 victory over Poland will not send tremors through the soccer world like their 2002 upset of reigning champion France. But it was a surprise against Group H’s dubious top seed and threw the foursome into chaos: Senegal and Japan top the group, not Poland and 2014 quarterfinalist Colombia.
“Senegal today represents the whole of the African continent,” said Coach Aliou Cisse, 42, who captained the upset of France in Seoul. “We are Senegal. We do represent our country, but we can also guarantee that the whole of Africa is supporting our Senegal national team. I get phone calls from everywhere. People do believe in our team and they’re proud.”
The Lions scored on an own goal in the 37th minute and, during a fortuitous sequence in the second half, a player reentering after injury pounced on a flawed back pass to score into an empty net.
Grzegorz Krychowiak’s 86th-minute header offered fleeting hope for Poland, but the better team prevailed before a spirited audience that included Senegalese President Macky Sall.
Moments after it ended, the Lions marched toward a cluster of supporters dressed in colorful outfits and led a synchronized celebration, complete with dancing and broad smiles. It wasn’t quite Iceland’s Viking Clap salute, but it was a pure moment of fan-player unity for a blossoming tournament darling.
“Yes, there was some luck involved, but we also worked an awful lot and deserved it,” said Mbaye Niang, an Italian-based forward who helped create the first goal and scored the second. “We managed to seize this opportunity when it was given to us.”
Senegal and Nigeria are West Africa’s representatives here, survivors from a continental qualifying campaign that dismissed 2014 entries Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast. The early days of the World Cup saw each African side fall, leaving the Lions to salvage continental pride and maintain realistic hopes of escaping the group stage.
Recent history is on Senegal’s side. Since 1998, 51 of 60 teams that won their first match advanced to the round of 16.
African soccer will like to do a little better. Projected some 30 years ago to begin fulfilling its immense potential, the continent has sent only three teams to the quarterfinals: Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010).
The Lions of Terenga have the personnel to make a mark. All but one player on the 23-man roster is employed by European clubs, including Liverpool, Napoli, Torino, Bordeaux, Anderlecht, West Ham and Monaco. The exception is veteran goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye, who toils in Guinea.
Senegal created danger with speed and technique, mounting potent if incomplete forays. The first goal came through strength and structure and was helped along by a deflection.
Niang muscled Lukasz Piszczek at midfield, chesting down the ball to begin an unchallenged run on the left side. He squared it to Senegal’s most important player, Liverpool attacker Sadio Mane, who waited for Idrissa Gana Gueye to join the attack.
Gueye drove a low, 22-yard attempt that was not going to beat goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. On its way, though, the ball caromed off defender Thiago Cionek and caught the keeper going the other way, the first of two misfortunes in Poland’s end.
N’Diaye preserved the lead early in the second half, flying to his left to punch Robert Lewandowski’s 25-yard free kick.
The second goal came out of nowhere. Standing next to the fourth official on the sideline, Niang waited to rejoin the action. He was allowed on — just as Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak was thumping what appeared to be a harmless back pass toward teammate Jan Bednarek.
Niang anticipated Krychowiak’s decision and sprinted behind Bednarek. Seeing a disaster unfold, Szczesny raced toward the ball but was too late. Niang guided it into the vacant net.
“When I came back on the pitch,” he said, “I saw a ball that was coming back toward the Polish defense, and I felt there was a shot to be taken.”
Said Polish Coach Adam Nawalka: “Bednarek couldn’t see the player on the side. There was a misunderstanding.”
Poland had claimed a top seed by manipulating FIFA’s flawed rankings — it avoided playing friendlies to protect its standing — and entered the World Cup as the most vulnerable of the chosen ones. Colombia was considered the favorite, but it too stumbled at the start, losing to Japan earlier Tuesday.
The early results have left the door open for these hungry Lions.
“Winning the first match, of course, means you start with the right pace,” Cisse said. “It’s very important to begin with a victory. But the second match and third match are important too.”
— Steven Goff
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Poland: vs. Colombia in Kazan, June 24.
Senegal: vs. Japan in Ekaterinburg, June 24.
Poland gets on the board in the 86th minute as a free kick finds its way to the head of Grzegorz Krychowiak, who bops it in. There was even more confusion over whether the official had stopped play for a substitute, and Senegal’s players appeared to be looking toward the sideline. This has not been the finest moment for Bahraini referee Nawaf Shukralla, whose game management will certainly be question afterward along with the sideline officials.
Chaos in the final moments
In the 85th minute, Ismaila Sarr is taken down in the box. It gets a check and there’s no penalty shot. Senegal Coach Aliou Cissé, meanwhile, is warned by the officials to stay in his designated sideline location.
One last sub for Poland
In need of fresh legs, Poland sends in Bartosz Bereszynski to replace Lukasz Piszczek in the 83rd minute.
Idrissa Gana takes a bad stab at the ball and ends up spiking Lewandowski in the 72nd minute. He’s shown the yellow.
Shortly after, Poland uses its first substitute: Dawid Kownacki in for Arkadiusz Milik. Then, Niang the goal scorer comes out for Moussa Konate.
After some confusion over a Senegal attempt to sub in a player, Mbaye Niang scampers off the sideline and — after a dreadful attempt by Krychowiak to bomb the ball back to his goalkeeper — finds the ball on a dead run at midfield. With nothing between himself and Wojciech Szczesny, it’s a 60th-minute goal — Niang’s first-ever international tally — and Senegal is up 2-0. Fox Sports’ rules expert says the referee completely botched the substitute process, and VAR has no protocol to review it. The goal, apparently, will stand.
Early booking for Senegal
With Robert Lewandowski charging up the field after he picked a Senegal player’s pocket, he’s brought down hard by Salif Sane right at the top of the box. Yellow card for Sane, but Lewandowski’s free kick is punched out by Khadim Ndiaye.
Halftime: Senegal 1, Poland 0
In a half in which neither team was able to gain a clear edge, it’s only fitting that the lone goal was a fluky own goal. The Lions of Teranga seemed to spend more time pressing forward as the half wore on. Favored Poland wasn’t able to cobble together much of anything.
Robert Lewandowski scored a record 16 goals in European qualifying but was invisible in the first half for Poland. We’ll see if that continues.
Senegal breaks through with a lucky goal in the 37th minute. Idrissa Gana sends a shot that bounces off Thiago Cionek and past a helpless Wojciech Szczesny. It’s the first time Poland has trailed since a 1-0 friendly loss to Nigeria in March, a span of three matches.
It’s the fourth own goal of this World Cup, and the first round of group-stage matches isn’t over yet. The full-tournament record is six, in 1998.
A little bit of trivia
Senegal is one of two World Cup teams this year with zero players stationed in its domestic pro league (Sweden is the other). Fourteen Senegal players take the field for club teams in England or France.
Another chance wasted by Senegal
Niang takes a pretty ball after a nice breakout by Youssouf Sabaly and has a step on his defender, but his breakaway attempt skitters far to the right of Szczesny.
Yellow for Krychowiak
After he was stripped of the ball at midfield, Grzegorz Krychowiak is booked for taking down Mbaye Niang in the 12th minute. Sadio Mane’s free-kick attempt on goal from far afield goes well wide, and we play on scoreless.
Not much to report
The two sides are still feeling each other out in the early going, with little in the way of chances. Mbaye Niang sent one in on Wojciech Szczesny in the seventh minute, but he handled it clearly.
Poland was able to manipulate FIFA’s rankings into a good draw for the tournament as one of its seeded teams — thus avoiding some of the world’s powers — by steadfastly refusing to play friendlies. Still, it’s a solid team that advanced to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Portugal. Senegal Coach Aliou Cissé — one of the heroes of the team’s 2002 run — has been criticized in some corners for his conservative tactics during qualification, but he was able to get the Lions of Teranga through without a loss.
The starting lineups
Of note: Veteran central defender Kamil Glik isn’t starting for Poland after injuring himself while trying a bicycle kick in practice a few weeks back. Senegal central defender Kara Mbodj also will start on the bench; he’s played in only two games since December.
— Matt Bonesteel
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