He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later… The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse’s like a movie

The coach of the Senegal National Team, Aliou Cisse, experienced a tragedy 20 years ago, when he was still a young football player, that many of us could not even see in our nightmares. After the events, Cisse, who showed an example of a character that his teammates at that time described as “surreal”, is still seen as the most important factor behind the success of his country.

Those were the years when social media was not yet in our lives. Black news was not heard as fast as it is today. Word of mouth among the players indicated that something bad had happened, but it would take some more time to understand the extent of the incident.


It has not been long since Aliou Cisse was transferred to Birmingham City, which plays in the English Premier League. Cisse trained with the rest of the team for about a week. No one knew that storms were brewing inside him at that time. She never lost her smile because of him. “I wanted to shield the rest of the team from my mood,” he would later explain.

It’s the weekend, and Cisse and his teammates board a bus for West Ham. The match ended with Birmingham City leading 2-1. Cisse did not leave a foot on the field for 90 minutes.

“What he did that day says a lot about this guy,” Michael Johnson, one of Cisse’s teammates at Birmingham, told The Athletic . It’s something that shows one’s strength and character.”

Back to what happened last week…

Cisse was watching TV in his apartment on the outskirts of Birmingham. Suddenly, a breaking news was reflected on the screens that the ferry named MV Le Joola sank off the coast of Gambia.


The next day, Cisse’s phone rang. The voice on the other end said that 12 members of his family were on the ferry. A sister of Cisse, her aunts, uncles, nephews and cousins ​​were lost in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean along with the sinking ferry.

Cisse hung up and panicked. “The hardest part was waiting,” he would describe those moments later, and go on to say:

“It was very difficult to reach someone with the right information. At one point people started saying, ‘This is not real.’ Some were saying that the ferry had already made landfall. At such moments, you start holding your breath and waiting. Until 30 minutes later, someone else said, ‘No, no, this is not real. ‘Until you say, ‘The ferry hasn’t arrived yet…’


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie



Operated by the Senegalese government, Le Joola was a 580-passenger ferry. However, this expedition from Ziguinchor, located in the south of the country, to the capital Dakar, exceeded the passenger capacity. Moreover, the weather was stormy and the waves were high. It all happened in a few minutes; The capsized ferry began to sink.

The decks were filled with children who didn’t even have tickets, women stretched out on wooden floors, men who had packed their entire lives into bags on their backs. Only 64 of the passengers survived. The accident, in which 1,863 people, many of them children, lost their lives, was recorded as one of the worst civil maritime disasters in human history. (The death toll was just over 1,500 when the Titanic sank in 1912.) In addition to Senegalese, the dead included citizens of many countries , including Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Spain , Norway, Belgium, Lebanon, Switzerland, And The Netherlands.

Cisse was 26 at the time, and despite going through this unbelievable tragedy, he somehow found the strength to take the field. “I kept everything to myself,” he would later say, adding: “It was a very complicated and difficult day, but my family needed me to be strong for them. They needed my presence. I couldn’t be weak.”

The same Cisse carried his country’s national team to the top 16 of the World Cup as the coach 20 years later.

“It seems so surreal that he was able to take the field with the team a few days later after losing so many members of his family in this disaster,” Johnson said.

“When I look back on today, I think, ‘If you are such a person as a person and as a player, then who knows how you manage your team as a coach…’ “What he did in the international arena is not a surprise because I remember what he put on the field as a player and how he stood out even on very dark days for himself.”


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie

This is how the Senegalese team celebrated their Africa Cup of Nations title



Spending some time in Senegal’s camp in Doha tells us that Cisse never wanted to be remembered for this tragic event that took place on September 26, 2002.

Cisse was team captain when the Senegal national team reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in its history, a few months before the Joola tragedy in 2002 .

Cisse, who missed a critical penalty in the match played against Cameroon in the African Cup of Nations final played in the same year, was sitting in the coaching chair when Senegal won the championship for the first time since 1957, last year.


As can be remembered, it was our National Team that eliminated Senegal with a score of 1-0 in the quarter-final match played on June 22, 2002. İlhan Mansız’s goal in the 94th minute went down in history as the last golden goal in World Cup history.


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie


Cisse reflects the spirit of the team, also known as the “Teranga Lions”. However, many of the players in the team are too young to remember the tragedy of their coach and the investigations that followed.

Players who know Joola can understand how a disaster of that magnitude shaped today’s Cisse. His students say that Cisse is a coach who inspires respect and fosters a sense of unity in the team.

Cisse is seen as the “Boss” in the team. As a matter of fact, Johnson said of Cisse, who he remembered 20 years ago, “He was a personality very similar to Roy Keane, he was very frank, very clear. He was a leader and he always filled this position.”

Former national football player Matthew Upson, who Birmingham City tied in January 2003, said: “There was something different about Cisse from the others. You can see that in his behavior and the way he has dealt with what he’s been through. I’m looking at him right now at the edge of the touchline and I see an intensity. It can be seen in his eyes.” said.

“He was always very serious in training. He always gave his all because he was that type of player. He was an excellent midfielder at stealing. He was aggressive, he had character,” said Upson.


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie



Cisse was also a very secretive person. After the Joola disaster, he took two weeks’ leave and went to Senegal. In this process, he took the field in a charity match played against Nigeria and the income was given to the families of those who lost their lives in the accident. He then returned to England.

In their first match on the return, Birmingham faced Manchester City. Before the match, Birmingham fans hung a giant Senegalese flag in the stands, but Cisse’s teammates didn’t know how to bring it up. After all, Cisse had only been on the team for a few months. From time to time, he gave the impression that his only concern was to play football and win the match, and everyone respected this situation.

It was the same in Cisse’s seven years as Senegal’s coach. The number of moments in which he seemed eager to talk about the tragedy that took place during this period was on the fingers of a hand. Journalists also accepted the fact that Joola would always be a difficult subject for Cisse and chose not to bring the event up at press conferences.

So it was somewhat surprising that Cisse agreed to speak for BBC Africa’s documentary “The Joola: Africa’s Titanic” for the 20th anniversary of the accident.

Stating that he wanted the younger generation to know what happened and the place of the event in the history of Senegal and Africa, Cisse said that he agreed to speak, “We must remember”.

Cisse continued: “We must remember those we have lost, all those families that disappeared from father to grandson. It is important to remember them, to commemorate them, to know that they are not with us, but in our hearts. “


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie




After Senegal’s 2-1 victory over Ecuador, the players dedicated the win to Papa Boub Diop, the second anniversary of his death. The banner, which was prepared by football players and reminded of Diop’s football career in Fulham, Portsmouth, West Ham and Birmingham, who died at the age of 42, read “The Real Lion Never Dies”.

With Cisse’s initiative, the Senegalese players followed a video message sent by Diop’s family before the game. Kalidou Koulibaly, who scored the winning goal, dedicated the “Man of the Match” award to Diop’s family. Stating that he would give the statuette to the family, Koulibaly said, “We are a group, we are a team, we are brothers.”

All these little touches bear the traces of Cisse’s approach to coaching. Cisse prefers to speak of a “collective” rather than individuals. In this way, Senegal managed to stay in the last 16 despite the absence of the most star player, Sadio Mane.


“I remember Aliou as a midfield general who liked to put his authority in the game. His presence was contagious. He was very clear about his beliefs, very confident about his football style,” Johnson said.

Emphasizing that Cisse adopts a management approach with respect and authority, Johnson said:

“Normally when you come to England from abroad it takes some time to adapt. He wasn’t like that. He was directly part of the heated discussions in the team and in the locker room. The secret was his demeanor and the way he spoke. one of his most notable characters was Robbie Savage, and I remember once Aliou put Robbie in his place.

“Oddly enough, the Joola disaster brought everyone closer to the team. We had another Senegalese player (Ferdinand Coly) that season. I remember being in a real spirit of togetherness, really supporting a friend who was in a very unfortunate situation.”


He experienced one of the biggest disasters in history, he went on the field a week later... The story of Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse's like a movie

Gareth Barry and Cisse battling for the ball during the Birmingham City-Aston Villa match played on 16 September 2002



Cisse played for Birmingham City For 2 Years. He was also in the squad in the match where Birmingham faced their arch-rival Aston Villa 3-0 after 9 years and went down as one of the most loved players in the team’s history. He also frequently expressed the “warmth and compassion” of Birmingham fans, who launched a fundraiser for those affected by the Joola disaster.

Transferred to Portsmouth in 2004, Cisse ended his acting career in France; In 2012, he took charge of Senegal’s under-23 national team and stepped into coaching.

Cisse, who draws attention on the side of the court with his upright stance, gray tracksuits and dreadlocks, both metaphorically and literally, wants to write a new success story these days.

The words that best summed up Cisse’s life came from Senegal’s midfielder Pape Gueye. “He’s a lion,” said Gueye, “and he roars like a lion when he talks to us.”

Compiled from The Athletic’s news titled “The family tragedy of Aliou Cisse , Senegal ‘s ‘lion’ of a coach”.


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