Paul Hassall sat down with the Senegalese player earlier this year.
Sadio Mane Exclusive Interview
Sadio Mane is no stranger to dealing with the pressure of expectation, writes Paul Hassall.
For club he is part of a forward triumvirate spearheading a resurgent Liverpool‘s quest to land a first league title in 29 years.
At national level he is Senegal’s ‘little diamond’, the star man of a country hoping to finally deliver at this summer’s African Cup of Nations, after years of promise without reward.
The dual responsibility would weigh heavy on most people’s shoulders, but not for Mane. The 26-year-old is excited by it. His infectious smile and modest demeanour mask the underbelly of a man with a steely determination to deliver on millions of supporters’ dreams and succeed on the biggest of stages.
Last year he was the only player to score in every round of the Champions League, eventually finding the target in a final that Liverpool went on to lose 3-1 to Real Madrid.
The juxtaposition of pride and disappointment was one he felt again just weeks later as his joy at scoring in a World Cup with Senegal ultimately ended in an unfortunate exit at the group stage.
It is now over half a year on and Mane is intent on looking towards a promising future, but he admits there remains a sense of what might have been when he reflects on the spring and summer of 2018.
“Firstly, I have to say it was the realisation of my dream to play for Senegal at a World Cup. It obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to, or how we expected it to, but it remains one of the best moments in my career,” he says during an exclusive chat with World Soccer at Liverpool’s Melwood training complex.
“It came so soon after playing on the biggest stage in club football, which was also something I had wanted so much since I was a very young boy. I managed to score in both the Champions League final and at the World Cup, but yes, there is a feeling of what might have been because it didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped for my club or my country.”
Senegal finished level on points and goal difference with Japan in Group H in Russia, but missed out on a place in the last 16 as a result of the fair play rule.
Mane winces at the mention of the yellow cards that cost his country the chance to go deeper in the competition.
“It was a strange situation the way we (Senegal) were knocked out,” he says with a grimace.
“The players, the staff – our whole country -were desperate for us to reach the knockout stage and we thought we had the squad to do it. We gave everything, so to go out because we received more yellow cards than Japan was so tough for us to take. In the end we were all just left massively disappointed
“It was a World Cup where there were some big surprises and who knows what we could have achieved if we’d made it past that first step. But we know we have to accept it and must learn from the experience. We are determined to make the nation even more proud in the future. It was 16 years since Senegal were last in a World Cup, so we must make sure it isn’t such a long wait again, and do everything to get to Qatar.”
Of course, Senegal weren’t the only side from Africa to fall at the first hurdle in Russia. For the first time since 1982, no team from the continent made it through to the knockout stage of a World Cup finals.
Tunisia simply weren’t strong enough, but Egypt will point to Mohamed Salah‘s shoulder injury as a major blow to their hopes. An impressive Morocco endured some last-gasp nightmares, while the youngest squad in the tournament, Nigeria, were just four minutes from making it through the so-called group of death.
When teams fail to achieve objectives excuses are inevitably made, but some critics have harshly suggested there is a deeper problem with the progression of African football
“With African football, it is always complicated,” says Mane, who is unconvinced by the suggestion teams from his continent have fallen behind
“A lot of players are based in different countries all over Europe. This isn’t a new thing but you can sometimes go three or four months without seeing more than one or two faces from the group. It’s not so much as an excuse, but something that makes it that bit harder to gel perfectly when we do meet up for matches.
“I don’t really want to analyse why other countries didn’t get through their groups, but like I say, we (Senegal) were very unlucky. We won our first game and then drew with Japan. They were a much better side than some people were giving them credit for. They beat Colombia and then gave Belgium a real scare in the last 16. What happened is part of football. You can play well, but luck has a role too. It wasn’t to be for us, or the other teams, unfortunately.
Mane’s passion for his country is evident in his proud tone. The Liverpool forward has come a long way since beginning his path to stardom on the roads of Bambali, the small village he grew up in on the banks of the Casamance River.
In his homeland he has been very much propelled into the stratosphere of super stardom, but with that inevitably comes a feeling of great responsibility.
In his most recent appearance for Senegal back in November, he was visibly upset, despite helping his team to a 1-0 win away to Equatorial Guinea in a Nations Cup qualifier.
Media speculation suggested boos from the crowd or a disappointment at struggling to match his rivals in the battle for the African Footballer of the Year were behind his tears, but the reality was far more humble and endearing
“It wasn’t such a big thing,” he says with a shrug as he recalls a game that perhaps lacked some intensity given that Senegal had already booked their spot at the Cup of Nations this summer.
“I just wanted to do better for my country. It has always been the most special part of being a professional footballer for me. When something isn’t going the way you hope, it is frustrating. I always look to make the same sacrifices on the pitch when I play for Senegal or Liverpool, but it can’t always go perfectly. I try to stay positive but it does mean a lot to me being involved with the national side. It made me the player I am today. Sometimes it can be very emotional if things don’t quite go to plan, but people will always talk and find other reasons for it. The truth was that I simply wanted to do better and didn’t produce the level I expected of myself on the day.”
At club level, Mane is a fundamental part of Liverpool’s front three, alongside a fellow African superstar in Egypt’s Mo Salah. The pair are also good friends off the pitch, but when it comes to individual prizes they are inevitably up against each other when the short lists are revealed.
Last year Mane came second to the Egyptian in the CAF Footballer of the year, and again missed out to Liverpool’s No.11 at the awards gala in January.
Such competition can often create rivalry, but Mane immediately laughs this off.
“You’d love me to say there is (a rivalry) wouldn’t you?” he says with a wry smile.
“The media seem to expect there to be, but I can honestly say it isn’t even a competition for us. I think you can see that in our relationship both on and off the pitch. Everyone is trying to do all that we can for the success of Liverpool – it’s not just about us.
“We represent the club and the city to the best of our ability and it’s something we enjoy. Mo loves Liverpool just like I do and he’s been sensational since he joined the club.
“We just want to win trophies with this team. That is the priority. I know other players in the world have a rivalry going for individual awards, but for us it isn’t something we think about too much. If we do, we have a laugh about it and if one of us ends up winning, we are all happy. The fact we get short-listed for any individual awards can only be good for Liverpool and our countries because it means we are doing something right. ”
Mane’s response is genuine and typical of the man. When Salah signed for Liverpool, Mane made little fuss moving to the left side of the attack, despite being named player of the year for his contribution from the right during his first year on Merseyside.
It’s obvious the shine of individual glory means less to Mane if the team does not succeed, so it takes some probing to get him to discuss what it would mean to be crowned African Footballer of the Year at some point in his career.
“It would be a huge honour,” he admits. “I try not to focus on individual accolades, but when I think back to my childhood in Senegal, I remember El Hadji Diouf winning it twice (2001 and 2002) and he was one of my big heroes. If I could follow in his footsteps and win it, I would be so proud. Hopefully it will happen one day.”
Mane’s memories of Diouf and the Senegal team that made such an impression on the world stage are never far away when it comes to the inspirations that fuel his desire to make his own history with his country.
This summer he will once again be seen as Senegal’s great hope as they dream of surpassing Diouf et al’s achievement of reaching the 2002 Cup of Nations final.
“It is going to be an exciting tournament, for sure,” he says. “When I heard the news it was moving to the summer (schedule) I was so happy. It’s not only good for me, but for Liverpool and my teammates too. It’s very important to have one focus at a time and it used to disrupt the club season in the winter. The tournament has also been expanded to 24 teams so I think you could say the winner is going to be the best African team of all time.
“In the past there have been some shocks with two or three of the biggest teams not qualifying, but now it has the larger format there are no excuses. If Senegal are going to win their first, this would be a great time to do it. We would be the best ever.”
Should Mane lead his country to a first major international honour this summer, there will be an element of redemption to it.
The forward’s 2015 campaign was hampered by injury, while two years later a strong start in the group stage was followed by the disappointment of missing a crucial spot kick in a quarter final shoot-out exit to Cameroon.
The phrases ‘third time lucky’ and ‘unfinished business’ spring to mind; and Mane quickly nods in agreement when reflecting on some frustrating memories.
“Of course. In 2015 I was halfway through the season with Southampton and I injured my calf. When I went to the tournament I was not 100 per cent. Two years later, I started well in the group stage, but it didn’t end well for me personally with the penalty. That is football sometimes,” he muses.
“Hopefully, this year it will be different because the Nations Cup is special to me. Senegal reached the final in 2002 and that is a big memory for me growing up as a kid. That was the moment I started to really focus on the national team. Millions of people in Senegal were inspired by how our team played in that competition. It is one of the best stories in our country’s history. Even now, that is a big motivation for us, to go one better and finally win this trophy for all of the people in Senegal. It would be incredible.”
Mane pauses and briefly allows himself to ponder such a triumph, but with the Nations Cup still several months away, he is all too keen to point out there is plenty of football to be played at club level before he turns his attention to battling with Africa’s elite.
Liverpool made the best start to a top-flight season in the club’s history and are hoping to edge out champions, Manchester City in the battle for the Premier League title.
The Reds have not finished top of the English top-flight since 1990 and, given his experiences with Senegal, Mane is fully aware of what success would mean to such a passionate set of supporters.
“I can’t wait to lift a trophy with Liverpool,” he says.
“I know the fans are desperate for us to win the Premier League. It would be an amazing moment for the club. It has been far too long for a team the size of Liverpool. We believe we are heading in the right direction, but there are obviously some very tough rivals. (Manchester) City were unbelievable last season and are very strong again, but why not? We are going to keep pushing and try to make everyone who loves the club very proud.
“We heard what some of the media were saying about us not starting off by playing as fast and exciting as last year, and we felt we weren’t at our best ourselves at times,” he admits.
“The results have been there but we know we could have done more with some of our performances. In many ways, this is good for the club. We are very competitive but know there is even more to come, for sure.
“The season is long, so we were always calm about it. In many ways, the team is stronger and we have produced some very mature performances. We work hard every day to be at our best and hopefully we will hit our top form when it really matters most.”
It goes without saying that Mane, Salah and Firmino will be crucial to Liverpool’s ambition to secure their first trophy under Jurgen Klopp.
The Merseysiders became the first team to have three players score 10 or more goals each in a single European Cup/Champions League season last term, as the attacking trident plundered an impressive 91 in all competitions.
The trio’s ability to recapture that red-hot form at the start of the current campaign was questioned by some in the media, but Mane is quietly confident they have yet to hit the peak of their powers, despite operating in a different system this season.
“We don’t just want to repeat last year, we want to get even better and score even more goals. Our best is yet to come in Liverpool shirts,” he says.
“When you have players like Bobby (Roberto Firmino) and Mo, they just make everything easier. We just seem to instinctively know each others’ movements and I think you can see that we enjoy playing together.
“We know we maybe didn’t start the season quite as strongly as we were playing last year. We were at an extremely high level, but hopefully it is coming again.”
Mane recently signed a new long-term contract that is reported to tie him to Anfield until 2023.
He follows the likes of Salah and Firmino in committing to Klopp’s vision for Liverpool and Mane nods enthusiastically when it is suggested the German manager was a key factor in his decision.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the world, but I think one of his secrets is that he is just an incredible person,” says Mane.
“He is someone who is very close to the players. We have a strong bond with him and he just has a way of inspiring you with his passion. All the boys love him and so do the fans. We are all improving and progressing under him. He is amazing for the club.”
Mane had been linked with the likes of Real Madrid in the summer and Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst having seen the likes of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho leave L4 for La Liga over the past decade.
However, Mane quickly rebuffs the suggestion he could have continued the trend of departures when asked if there was anything in the rumours.
“Speculation is part of football,” he says shaking his head.
“You just learn to live with it and not take it too seriously. All I can say is that my only concern is Liverpool.
“Mo, Bobby… – it seemed like everyone was signing contracts and they were saying, ‘hey, Sadio when are you going to sign?’ I said to each of them, ‘don’t worry bro, I will sign.’ And what did I do? I signed, so they are pleased now! (laughs).
“I’m very happy here and I think people are happy with me too. We want to write our names alongside the many great ones in the famous story of this club. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of something special.”
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