By Alistair Hendrie
A group of children gather in a square in Bambali, Senegal to catch a glimpse of their hero Sadio Mane, who has returned to his birthplace to announce his plans to develop a hospital and a school in the area. “Sadio, Sadio, Sadio!” they chant, whipping up a frenzy as the Liverpool forward watches from a balcony.
Suddenly a man with dreadlocks, perhaps aged around fifty, demands silence amid the commotion. A hush sweeps across the crowd. The man yells up to Mane: “Anything you can do, do it not just for Bambali, but for all of Senegal. May God assist you.” Mane nods along and the crowd explodes again, dancing, singing and drumming to celebrate their talisman.
It’s a scene in Vertical Social Club and arena11’s documentary Sadio Mane: Made in Senegal, which demonstrates how although Mane is revered in his homeland, he still receives criticism for his performances for the national team. Throughout the piece, though, he is mobbed for photos and handshakes as cameras follow him across Bambali and Liverpool.
Those who know Mane best are interviewed and Aliou Cisse, the Senegal manager, describes Mane as a part of the great “castle” of African players. Mady Toure, the president of Dakar’s Generation Foot academy where Mane lived from the age of 15, said he thinks of the current African Footballer of the Year as a son.
Furthermore, the coach who brought Mane to Metz in France in 2011, Olivier Perrin, remembers how Mane played like “something out of a video game.” The first time Perrin watched the youngster “he intercepted the ball in the penalty area and proceeded down the entire field before making the decisive pass to the guy who scored. It wasn’t normal.”
As the documentary unveils how Mane lost his father at the age of seven and how nowadays he struggles to sleep after matches with the adrenaline pumping, Liverpool staff and players also give their thoughts on camera. Manager Jurgen Klopp, centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and central midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum all talk of Mane in glowing terms.
Why wouldn’t they? This is man who has helped Liverpool win the Champions League, the World Club Cup and the UEFA Super Cup in the last year. And yet the naysayers in Senegal remain, despite his status as Senegal’s fourth highest ever scorer with 19 goals. Despite his four consecutive appearances in the Confederation of African Football’s team of the year. Despite his winning the Premier League golden boot in 2018-2019.
One market worker in the film argues that Mane doesn’t perform well enough for Senegal. “Sadio Mane is only good at his club and not his country,” he fumes. “It’s not OK, we aren’t happy with him.” Another chimes in: “He’s one of Africa’s best players, but he doesn’t show it here.” A third bystander adds: “He’s the best, he knows it but he needs to bring something home – the Africa Cup of Nations!”
Indeed, Mane is depicted at his lowest ebb when, in 2017, he misses the deciding spot-kick against Cameroon in their Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final penalty shoot-out. “It really hurt when he missed that penalty,” says Mane’s sister, Mariatou Toure. “It was really tough, people destroyed Sadio’s car after that.” Another scene shows locals arguing about Mane’s status in the national team. It becomes heated as one participant bellows: “He’s our leader!”
Mane struggled to have an impact on the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final as well, when Algeria ran out 1-0 winners. He hasn’t always impressed in the national jersey but playing in Africa - where conditions are different, pitches are inferior and the pressure is intense - will never be easy. Fans will forever ask: “Well, if he can walk the walk in the Premier League, why can’t he do it for his country?”
For instance, England fans were guilty of vilifying David Beckham after was sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Nevertheless, the former Real Madrid man scored the free kick against Greece which sent England to the 2002 World Cup, and in the group stages of that World Cup he converted a penalty against Argentina, earning a measure of revenge.
So perhaps the fans who question Mane’s level of effort for Senegal might eat their humble pie. Supporters get frustrated when national stars don’t produce their club form at international level, but Senegal have a way of playing and Liverpool have a way of playing.
Note Mane’s telepathic relationship with Roberto Firmino. Last October, against RB Salzburg in the Champions League, the duo played a lovely one-two, slicing through the Austrians’ backline as Mane netted against his former club. You don’t get that kind of understanding overnight, especially when national teams only get together every three to four months.
Elsewhere, the death of Mane’s father is portrayed with sensitivity and compassion. “The day my father died I was seven years old,” says Mane. “We were about to play on the field when a cousin approached me and said my father passed away. I couldn’t grasp it. He had a stomach ache but because there were no hospitals we tried traditional medicine. So they took him into the village for treatment but he died there.”
Those upsetting memories surface alongside animated reconstructions and sky-high shots of Bambali. Made in Senegal also twists towards elements of a thriller as Mane runs away to Generation Foot in Dakar, defying his family in the hope of becoming a professional footballer. He tells only his closest friend Luc Djiboune where he is, and Mane’s distressed mother warns Djiboune he’ll get beaten up if he doesn’t disclose her son’s whereabouts.
There’s comedy too when Mane arrives in Metz to see dark, blustery and drizzly skies. Oblivious to anything other than the heat of Bambali, he spends his first training session battling the elements in a t-shirt and shorts. His new teammates fall about laughing, wrapped up in layers, coats and gloves. “It was so cold and a bit bizarre,” laughs Mane. “Oh God, did I suffer that day!”
Made in Senegal, all things considered, plays out with balance and intimacy, revealing a lot about Mane away from the goals, success and trophies. Mane is idolised by the majority of Senegal and worshipped by all Liverpool supporters, chiefly for moments of genius such as last season’s backheeled goal against Watford, and his solo effort on his Liverpool debut against Arsenal in 2016.
Although Senegal haven’t enjoyed the kind of stardust Mane has sprinkled at Liverpool, once it’s all said and done he should be remembered as one of Africa’s finest alongside the likes of Roger Milla, Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba. Perrin puts it best when he states: “He plays football like the greats. When you have fun you’re stronger and I think he’s having fun.”
Take in the documentary here for free, as Mane reveals tales of grief, defying his parents and success on the football pitch
Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more