It was a freezing night in east London, but inside Little Baobab, an inconspicuous Senegalese restaurant hidden away in a building in Clapton, there was cautious buzz of optimism. Usually the venue hosts Senegalese musicians, often playing mbalax, a type of Senegalese and Gambian dance music. But tonight, it was all about the football, with the crowd of 40 or so largely hopeful their team could reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup for just the second time.
Khadim Mbamba, the restaurant’s chef, refused to sit, but chose instead to lean nervously against a chair at the very back of the room. “Some people have told me Senegal only have a 15% chance of winning,” he said. “I would say 35%. I don’t think there’s going to be many goals, though. 1-0 or 2-1, maybe.”
For Mbamba, it’s significant the team are led by Aliou Cissé, a veteran of the famous 2002 campaign when Senegal beat then world champions France.
“We were coached by French managers so long. Now, most of the African teams are coached by Africans. Every country has its own mentality. A Senegalese manager knows how to handle the team and deal with the players.”
The Senegalese team are no stranger to grief. In the year of the 2002 World Cup campaign, the MV Le Joola, a ferry that connects Senegalese coastal cities, sank and 1,863 people lost their lives. Eleven of them were relatives of Cissé, and his sister was one of the dead. Two years ago, Papa Bouba Diop, the sole scorer in that famous victory against the French, died suddenly at the age of 42. The players led tributes to Diop ahead of their victory against Ecuador.
Though their talisman, Sadio Mané, was cruelly injured before the tournament, and former Paris Saint-Germain Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye was suspended, this is a Senegalese team with real quality – among them goalkeeper Édouard Mendy and defender Kalidou Koulibaly, both of whom play for Chelsea.
Ndene, a teacher and friend of Khadim, said that for some of the players who don’t play at that level, competing in the knockout rounds of this tournament is an opportunity to earn themselves a move to a bigger club.
“Every team wants to have Harry Kane. But the young Senegalese players really want to prove themselves,” Ndene said. “There are some young players, 23 or 24 years old. Iliman Ndiaye [of Sheffield United] for example, who plays in the Championship. Next year he wants to be in the Premier League.”
Ahead of the kick-off, the Senegalese anthem was hummed discreetly by only a few in the restaurant, but as it went on, more and more joined in, until by the time of the crescendo it was raucous, people standing and belting out the tune. Then, as the game got under way, the room rang with yelps of encouragement and appeals to the referee, peaking when the video assistant referee denied Senegal a penalty after the ball cannoned off the hand of England defender John Stones.
But the positivity drained from the room when England went 2-0 up in added time in the first half. At the break, the mood was subdued, with the Lions of Teranga 2-0 behind.
Behind the projector screen showing the match, enticing smells emanated from stainless steel vats: small deep-fried pastries called fataya, mafe peanut butter and vegetable stew, chicken yassa with onions, caramelised with lime. Customers queued and the food restored some buoyancy.
Ashley grew up in Leyton, and had been to Little Baobab before. “Usually I’d watch an England match at the pub,” she said. “But to come here, to see the Senegalese culture, and eat the great food – it’s a different experience.”
And there was still hope. Reuben is from Derbyshire, but lives in east London. “I’m British through and through,” he said. “But I want to see an African country do well, just one time. I’m happy whoever wins, but now, with Ghana and Cameroon out, it’s all on Senegal.”
Michael, a French national of Senegalese descent, was upbeat. “Senegal have been the better team. I think we have a chance of getting back into it.”
But then it was on again, and just before the hour mark, England added to their lead through Bukayo Saka. Underneath the traditional Senegalese fabric bunting hung from the ceiling, the mood fell flat. Some got up and left. The final whistle blew, and the current holders of the African Cup of Nations were out.
There was applause at full-time. And then the mbalax started back up, rhythmic and intensely joyful.
“It was expected. Now I’m supporting France,” said Michael. So what next? “Keep Aliou as the coach. Now we just look forward to the next African Cup of Nations … and winning it again.”