Few expected to see Alfred N’Diaye lining up for Senegal’s opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ against Poland, in place of the team’s talismanic captain Cheikhou Kouyate.
“Why did Alfred play? He performed well in the warm-up matches,” explained Tony Sylva, Senegal’s goalkeeping coach and an assistant to head coach Aliou Cisse. “Cisse studied Poland in depth and sent out the best possible team for the match. And Alfred was part of it. Obviously there were some technical errors and he can do better, but his performance was very encouraging in terms of what lies ahead.”
“When the coach told me I was starting, I said to myself that I had to rise to the occasion, which is what I tried to do,” said N’Diaye, who no doubt owed his place in part to his understanding with Idrissa Gana Gueye. The two combined to good effect in midfield on Tuesday. In dispatching their defensive duties and pressing their opponents at every opportunity, they did much to blunt the Polish threat, while also playing valuable attacking roles by starting moves and getting into goalscoring positions.
“Idrissa’s reading of the game and ball-winning ability are huge attributes in midfield,” said N’Diaye, who plays his club football for Wolverhampton Wanderers, of his Everton-based colleague. “He makes my job easier and we spoke a lot on the pitch.”
Senegal have often been accused of lacking a vocal presence, someone who is not afraid to raise their voice and spur the rest of the team on. But perhaps the Lions of Teranga have finally found that player in N’Diaye. Against Poland, the Paris-born midfielder never stopped urging his colleagues to do better.
A surprise inclusion in Cisse’s 4-2-3-1 formation, N’Diaye contributed to another unexpected development, as the Senegalese saw off a team sitting in the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Their win was all the more notable for the fact that the four other African representatives in Russia had all lost their opening games. “Senegal represent the whole of African football. The whole continent is behind us,” said Cisse after the match. “I’m getting calls from everyone and people believe in us. We’re proud to represent Africa. Winning the first match gets you going, but the second match is important too, and the third.”
— Kanu Nwankwo (@papilokanu) June 19, 2018
Following his appearance against the Poles, N’Diaye can expect to play a part in Senegal’s remaining group games. Anything but overawed on his debut in a major competition, ‘Fred’ is setting his sights high: “We respect [Robert] Lewandowski. He’s a great player, like [Radamel] Falcao, James Rodriguez and Shinji Kagawa of Japan. But we’ve got some good players too. And every time we go back out on the pitch, there won’t be any respect for our opponents, no matter who they are: we’ll be going out to win.” Having crashed the Russia 2018 party in style, Senegal’s surprise guest is ready to confound expectations once more against Japan.