Defender Abdou Diallo says Senegal are aiming to do better than any other African nation by reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar.
No side from the continent has made it past the quarter-finals, with Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and most recently Ghana (2010) knocked out in the last eight – all after extra time or penalties.
Diallo says the African champions, who exited the 2018 tournament in the group stage, want to “break a glass ceiling” when they embark on their third World Cup finals.
“Even though we can’t see the future, you have to be convinced that you definitely can achieve it,” the 26-year-old Paris St-Germain centre-back told BBC Sport Africa.
“We also had a glass ceiling in the Nations Cup final and we broke it, so my dream is to break another one. If we manage to do that, I will be the happiest.
“There are no complexes. If we don’t make it, we don’t make it, but you have to accept that pressure because it means that we are doing a good job.”
Senegal begin their Group A campaign against three-time runners-up the Netherlands on 21 November before they play hosts Qatar on 25 November and finally Ecuador four days later.
Two decades ago, Senegal stunned defending champions France with an unexpected 1-0 win on their World Cup debut.
The West Africans then drew with Denmark and Uruguay and beat Sweden 2-1 to reach the quarter-finals, before being eliminated 1-0 by Turkey after a golden goal in the fourth minute of extra time.
Regarded as the golden generation of Senegalese football, Diallo has fond memories of the famed squad that played in South Korea and Japan in 2002.
“I get flashes of my father lifting me in the air, I remember the neighbours complaining about the noise,” he said.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse was part of that trailblazing squad, while fellow members of the side such as El Hadji Diouf provide inspiration to the current Teranga Lions squad.
“These are our big brothers, we grew up with them, we were told about them all the time,” Diallo said.
Senegal’s side from the 2002 World Cup, which included current boss Aliou Cisse (front row, right) and forward El Hadji Diouf (front row, second left) are a source of inspiration to the current squad
“That generation really inspired us and 20 years later, we got into the Nations Cup final again, won it this time and had our older brothers with us, celebrating as if they had won it themselves. It was great.”
Former Lens and Liverpool forward Diouf was with the Senegal squad in Cameroon, and Diallo says Diouf “remains a player” in spirit and provides positivity.
“I think he will be one forever. Any type of game we’re playing, he’s there,” he added.
“It’s good, he lights up and he is a true [ray of]sunshine when he comes. He puts us in that mindset: ‘You are the best, you are going to win’.
“We can feel that he is behind us, he is also close friends with the manager that was his captain. It’s always nice to have our elders and to be united.
“Now it’s our turn [at the World Cup]. We have to write this country’s history and we’ll see where it gets us.”
Having lost the final of the 2002 Nations Cup as captain and the 2019 edition as a coach, Cisse finally led the Teranga Lions to a maiden continental success in February.
The country erupted in celebration after decades of heartbreaking near misses to erase Senegal’s reputation as one of Africa’s underachieving footballing nations.
Thousands took to the streets in the capital Dakar, with car horns blaring and fireworks set off after the penalty shootout victory over Egypt, but it took a few months for Diallo – the only man to play every minute in Cameroon – to truly understand the impact of their achievement.
“Being in Dakar and talking to people, it’s unbelievable. I am just starting to realise now what happened back in February,” he said.
“I had fathers telling me that we made them cry, that they never experienced something like that before. There is real emotion.”
Diallo was born in France to Senegalese parents and represented the European nation at five youth levels before captaining the under-21s.
But, after earning 61 youth caps for France, he switched allegiance to Senegal and made his debut against Congo in March 2021, becoming a mainstay under Cisse.
“I always connect with my Senegalese background from quotes, books and strong figures from the country that people talked to me about,” he added.
“But now I get to finally see it by being in the country more often. I think that at some point everyone needs to find their roots.”
Diallo defies convention and breaks most football stereotypes, having broken through at Monaco after spells in four youth teams in Tours.
He only managed 10 senior games during a four-year stint at the French club, and spent a season each at German sides Mainz and Borussia Dortmund before joining PSG in 2019.
He co-authored a book titled ‘Le coup d’envoi de nos rêves’ (Kicking off our dreams) detailing his journey through the youth set-up at Monaco, and also co-hosts a podcast called Balle Au Centre (Ball in the Centre) with his friends.
“I am a football player that allows myself to do what he wants to do,” he said.
“There are a lot of footballers that want to do it as well, but the question is: do they dare? I dare because I do not want to be limited and I do it in a very natural way.”
Diallo says the football world is “very complicated” but his podcast allows a glimpse of its reality.
“For a long time, the footballer’s communication was only to make people dream,” he said.
“But today, in the social media era and because we are closer to the public, you can tell them the truth.
“I don’t consider myself as a journalist, but on certain topics it’s about being free to speak up and inspire the younger generation, and also give the world a more realistic image of footballers and the football world.
“You can like what I do on the pitch, but I am just a man. I am not perfect.
“I try to be an example. Am I? That’s another question.”