It was a scene normally reserved for major tournament finals: on one side, players were crumpled in a heap, heads in their hands and tears in their eyes, while on the other, their opponents were haphazardly running back and forth, hugging each other and screaming for joy.
In this case, the elated winners were Senegal, who had just defeated five-time champions Brazil in the quarter-finals of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Russia 2021™.
And in the middle of all the mayhem could be found an emotional Raoul Mendy, down on his knees with his fingers pointing up at the sky. Senegal’s No9 was outstanding versus the Brazilians on Thursday, scoring two fine goals and inspiring his team-mates to glory.
This display was very much in keeping with the form he has shown so far in Russia, following on from his hat-trick and brace against Uruguay and Portugal respectively in the group stage, during which he sadly learned of the death of his mother – a fact that makes his performances in Russia all the more remarkable.
“I take my hat off to Raoul!” Senegal coach Oumar Sylla told FIFA.com. “It’s obviously a very difficult time for him, but his fantastic performances out here are a good way of paying his respects to his mother.”
Sylla was certainly not overstating Mendy’s influence; the star performer brought the score level at 3-3 with a composed free-kick with just two minutes remaining on the clock, and then put the African side ahead during the extra-time period. Mendy has been tipped for success for many years as he came through the highly respected Generation Foot, where he played alongside Liverpool star Sadio Mane until 2011.
“Me, a hero?” asked Mendy with a broad grin on his face. “Not at all! It was the team that was heroic. When you win a match like that, it’s through playing as a team. To be frank, the way we all get on so well together in this squad has been a key factor in our results here in Russia. We’re always trying to help and support each other. Personally speaking, given my situation, my team-mates have given me tremendous support.”
Time to dream big
For the first time in eight appearances, this “group of mates”, in Mendy’s words, will compete in the semi-finals of the Beach Soccer World Cup. On four previous occasions, the Lions of Teranga were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
“We’ve learned from our mistakes and have become more confident in our abilities,” he explained. “We knew it was going to be difficult today, but we also knew that we were capable of winning, even when we were 3-1 down to Brazil. We never let our heads drop!”
This famous triumph inevitably opens the door to further exciting possibilities. Mendy and his compatriots could be forgiven for starting to dream of a maiden World Cup title, to add to their six CAF Beach Soccer Championship successes. “We’re aware that we’ve achieved something big, but we also know that even greater feats might be just around the corner,” he said.
There are just two hurdles left for Senegal in their quest to be crowned world champions. The first is on Saturday against Japan. The second, a potential final, would come on Sunday. Given the reaction that followed their win over Brazil, it is difficult to imagine the emotions involved for Senegal – and for Mendy in particular – should they find themselves on top of the beach soccer world by the end of the weekend.