The importance of the occasion was not lost on Kalidou Koulibaly and neither was the poignancy. Two years to the day since Papa Bouba Diop died aged 42, his successors in the Senegal shirt honoured the midfielder’s memory in the finest way possible, advancing into the last 16 and a date with England at the expense of Ecuador.
Koulibaly prepared for the Group A decider by watching videos of Bouba Diop in his prime. The Senegal captain shaped it with his first international goal, sending the Africa Cup of Nations champions through and Ecuador out with a winner 150 seconds after Moisés Caicedo’s equaliser threatened to turn the tables.
Bouba Diop, or “The Wardrobe” as he was known, started Senegal’s run to the 2002 quarter-finals with a famous winner against France for a team featuring the current manager Aliou Cissé. Cissé’s crew can eye a repeat courtesy of a composed and powerful victory over Ecuador, and a timely contribution from their captain.
“We knew this was one of the most important games of our career,” said the Chelsea defender, who sported a ‘19’ on his armband in tribute to the former Fulham and Portsmouth midfielder. “The anniversary of Papa’s death was important for us and his family. We wanted to do him proud and pay homage to him. He made me dream as a boy. This wasn’t something we wanted to let slip. I saw the videos his family posted of him. It really hit home.”
Ecuador had played with freedom and creativity in their opening two matches to leave themselves needing a draw. And perhaps that was their problem. Here Gustavo Alfaro’s team had something to lose, and the vibrancy was nowhere to be seen under the pressure of protecting what they had. Senegal, knowing they needed to win, were uninhibited.
Amid a backdrop of incessant drumming from Senegal supporters, who put almost as much effort into each performance as the players do, Cissé’s side controlled the first half. They should have been ahead inside three minutes when Idrissa Gueye found himself unmarked in front of goal after Boulaye Dia and Iliman Ndiaye allowed Ismaïla Sarr’s cross to roll into the midfielder’s path. The Everton player’s first-time shot sailed centimetres wide. Gueye later collected a second booking of the tournament that rules him out of the last-16 tie, and what would have been his 100th cap.
Despite the importance of a clean sheet to Ecuador there was a lack of concentration in their defence throughout, and it cost them dearly just before half-time. The right-back Angelo Preciado and central defender Félix Torres misjudged the flight of a long ball out of the Senegal defence. Sarr read it perfectly, muscling in ahead of Torres on the left and taking one touch inside the area before being clattered by a clumsy challenge from centre-half Piero Hincapié.
The French referee Clément Turpin pointed to the spot and Sarr, who had missed his two previous penalties at club level, stroked it confidently inside the bottom left corner with Ecuador’s goalkeeper, Hernán Galíndez, rooted to his line.
Ecuador required a change of mindset and approach for the second half and their Argentinian coach responded with a double substitution at the interval. The introduction of José Cifuentes and Brighton’s Jeremy Sarmiento sparked an immediate improvement and, for the first time, Senegal were on the back foot for a sustained spell. Édouard Mendy had still had nothing to do before picking the ball out of his net, however.
The equaliser was maddening for Cissé as his team switched off at a corner. Gonzalo Plata’s delivery was met by the bleached blond head of Torres and fell to Caicedo, unmarked and kept onside by Youssouf Sabaly standing on the goalline at the opposite post. The Brighton midfielder tucked away a simple finish and the Senegal drums fell silent. But they were beating again within two minutes.
Caicedo’s moment of triumph quickly turned to despair when Gueye swung a free-kick into a crowded penalty area. The ball struck Ecuador’s goalscorer on the thigh and looped up for Koulibaly to restore Senegal’s precious lead with a close-range volley.
Sarmiento led Ecuador’s response impressively but there was also a desperation to their pursuit of a second equaliser. Enner Valencia, the tournament’s joint leading scorer alongside Kylian Mbappé, was given no opportunity to add to his three goals in Qatar. Senegal defended superbly in the closing stages before heading into the last 16 to the sound of drums. Ecuador exited in tears. Galíndez had to be helped off his knees by two members of the backroom team. A training bib draped over the head of Caicedo could not hide his sobbing.