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Senegal's  World Cup Success Unites West Africa - 2002-06-17


Senegal's advance to the World Cup quarterfinals has triggered celebrations of pride throughout West Africa, and observers say it has also provided a political boost for Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.

Newspapers in Senegal's capital, Dakar, were emblazoned Monday with headlines hailing the country's victory over Sweden Sunday in a match that qualified the Senegalese team for the quarterfinals. Senegal is only the second African nation in history to make it into the World Cup quarterfinals, following Cameroon in 1990.

President Abdoulaye Wade has been quick to spearhead celebrations in Dakar. Following Senegal's first victory in the World Cup on May 31 against France, the president declared a national holiday and drove around Dakar in a motorcade juggling a football.

After Senegal's win over Sweden on Sunday, Mr. Wade addressed a large crowd outside the presidential palace. Senegal, Mr. Wade said, is not only playing for itself, but for Africa, and perhaps even for France, its former colonial ruler, which was ousted from the tournament last week.

Opponents have criticized Mr. Wade for taking such a prominent role in the celebrations, accusing him of trying to draw political gain and take credit for the team's victories.

Observers like Latif Gueye, a Wade supporter and head of L'Afrique C'est L'Afrique, a Dakar-based non-governmental organization that promotes African unity, said he believes Mr. Wade is right to seize on what he says is an opportunity to raise national morale.

"What is important is that this will restore our dignity," he said. "It is understood now that Africans are not happy playing a secondary role in the world." Mr. Gueye says, "no matter how difficult things may be, if we are determined, just as the Senegalese players were, we can overcome anything here, be it political, economic or social."

Senegal's advance to the quarterfinals has eclipsed problems the nation is currently facing, including rising poverty and crime, discontent among farmers and a festering 19-year-old rebellion in the Cassamance region.

Celebrations have been going on throughout much of the continent since Senegal's victory over France. One newspaper headline in South Africa Monday read, "One Senegal, One Africa."

Indeed, African football fans appear to have united behind Senegal. Issa Lassissi, 21, is among a large group of Ivorians watching a World Cup match outside a storefront in Abidjan's central Plateau district.

He says he hopes Senegal will win the World Cup because, "we need to show the whole world that we Africans are good players, too. It is important, because we Africans are very much unknown throughout the world. People underestimate us. Right now, we are all Africans." Mr. Lassissi says the Senegalese are playing "not only for Senegal right now. They are playing for the whole of Africa. That is why I support them. This shows that we Africans can come together."

The Senegalese team qualified for the quarterfinals after beating Sweden Sunday 2-1. Its next match is Saturday when it will face either Turkey or Japan, who will meet on Tuesday.

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