The year 2002 meant a lot of things to Senegalese football as it was the first year they qualified for their first World Cup finals and also made it to the final of the AFCON.
In Korea and Japan, the Lions of Teranga had made headlines for beating their colonial masters France before they went on to secure a quarterfinal finish, equaling the previous best African record set by Cameroon in Italia ‘90.
Senegal played some breathtaking football at those tournaments and were close to making history, but the joy of the people soon thawed in the face of a national tragedy.
The captain of the Senegalese team at both tournaments, Aliou Cissé, now coach of the Senegalese national team particularly was in pains.
He had lost 11 members of his family on the Joola, a popular Senegalese boat which capsized on the 26th of September 2002 off Gambian coasts.
The boat was a a regular means of transportation for Senegalese looking to cross to the north of the country and beating border worries in the process.
That tragedy, reported by the BBC to be bigger than the Titanic’s led to the loss of nearly 1,900 lives.
“This tragedy is not only personal, it is collective,” Cissé told the BBC.
“You have to remember there were all layers of Senegalese society on that boat,”
Cissé lost his sister and ten other family members in that boat tragedy. It was devastating and still remains one of Africa’s worst water tragedies.
”In reality, the whole region was decimated. Everyone in the city of Zinguichor had one, or two, or even ten family members who were left in that shipwreck.”
“My family needed me, so I couldn’t be weak. They really needed me, they needed my presence. In fact, as soon as we played the game (for Birmingham City), I went straight to Dakar to see my family.
”It’s true that these are moments that we will never forget. And this is the first time since the sinking that I’ll speak about it in the press. It was a very difficult time,” he said.
Cissé earlier this year became Senegal’s first coach to win the AFCON.
What was Nigeria’s involvement?
After the wreckage of the MV Le Joola, which is state-owned, Cissé led the Senegalese national team to play in a charity game against the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
The game which ended in a 2-2 draw featured top Senegalese football stars like Hadji Diouf, late Papa Bouba Diop, Omar Daf, Alliou Cisse, Tony Silva, Henry Camara and others.
The Super Eagles featured a mainly home-based team.
Money was raised for the families of the reported victims of the incident and Birmingham City also supported Cissé by helping to raise money for the victims.