The Senegalese football jersey is a powerful symbol of nationhood and independence.
In Kehinde Wiley’s 2008 portrait “Dogon Couple,” a man wears the jersey of the Senegalese national football team, layered with a pendant bearing an image of Leopold Senghor. Two symbols—the image of the bespectacled intellectual and long-time president, and the seal of the Fédération Sénégalaise du Football—founded at the moment of independence, in 1960—alongside one another, echoing each other.
Senegal plays in the Men’s World Cup today for the first time since 2002, when they made a historic run to the quarterfinals. Alongside Cameroon in 1982 and Ghana in 2010, they are the only African country to do so. They began that run with a deeply symbolic 1-0 victory over France in the first game of the tournament. This was the French team of Zidane and Thuram, which had won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Cup in 2000, so it was all the more a shock victory.
Senegal’s goal came in the 30th minute. El-Hadji Diouf shot past Frank LeBoeuf up the left side of the field, leaving him lying on the turf, and passed it to Papa Bouba Diop right in front of goal. Though his shot hit Fabien Barthez, he fumbled it forward, and Diop, fallen to the ground, managed to sweep the ball into the net while various French defenders fell and stood around him, dazed and calling helplessly for an offside call.
What followed was one of my favorite goal celebrations in the history of the sport. Diop took off his jersey and ran to the corner flag. As his teammates ran towards him, he placed the jersey on the ground, gesturing towards it. It was a powerful point: the jersey scored the goal, he seemed to be saying, it is the jersey that should be celebrated. Moving the focus away from himself, he centered it on the symbol not just of the team of the history of Senegalese football itself, understanding the deep historical significance of the moment.
A mural painted in Dakar to celebrate this goal captures all the layers of meaning in the moment. At the top, Diop is on the ground scoring, the French defenders around him topped by a giant question mark, wondering how this is possible. A lion, the symbol of the Senegalese team, smiles above him. Below, Diouf is pictured at the heart of the African continent, rushing forwards, just next to him a painting of Gorée’s Maison des Esclaves, which recalls and commemorates the history of the French slave trade. You can see, beyond the dungeons where slaves were held before they were marched out to waiting ships, the “Door of No Return,” and beyond, the sea.