Sadio Mane is a Senegalese (Fairtrade) brand

What can the Senegalese Sadio Mane’s story tell us about the marketing of dreams.

Still from Made in Senegal.

Here’s what we learn from the documentary film Sadio Mané: Made in Senegal: Sadio Mané is a footballer of exceptional caliber; professional football is among the most fetishized entertainment industries of our times; and popular sports-talk relies on clichés and therefore requires more than literal translation to understand the conveyed sentiment.

Sadio Mané: Made in Senegal tells the story of a child, whose seemingly impossible dream comes true in the most spectacular of ways. It is a real-life fairy tale. It narrates the life and making of one of the most successful professional footballers of recent times, largely in his own words. The title, Made in Senegal, also conveys SMané as a product—an export product in the most fetishized industry of the contemporary world. His net worth is about US$20 million, and he takes home a weekly salary of US$121,000. But he is not merely an export product. He is a brand, an African, a Senegalese brand. Sadio Mané is an export brand, finest of the kind, made in Senegal.

The documentary presents Mané almost as a “fairtrade brand.” There is ample evidence to support the argument that professional sport operates like an entertainment industry and professional athletes are not just labor, but products, bought and sold in their respective sports markets. What Mané’s story tells us about him as a football product or brand is that this global transaction—a talented footballer extracted from Africa, exported to Europe— is done in the fairest of manners. Labor is rewarding and rewarded, not just in material terms, but in appreciation and honor. While it is important to bear in mind the exceptional quality of this brand, this “fairtrade footballer” goes beyond individual success and prosperity. His success has direct material benefits to the village he was once extracted from.

Football fans across the planet are likely to be aware, and in awe, of the quality that the Mané brand produces on the field. The documentary introduces us to the man behind the brand. We learn about the dreamer, the professional, and the person, who is negotiating the incongruent worlds of extreme inequality at the height of his success. Observing the loud celebrations of his football achievements in the streets of Dakar, Mané reflects: “It’s an extraordinary moment. You see people suffering, singing, dancing…When you see these kinds of people and all the offerings in front of the house, you think, ‘Wow! I have to work even harder for them.’ ”

There is an ambivalence in this reflection that expresses both familiarity with and disconnection from the everyday sufferings of the Senegalese. And what does he do with this ambivalence? He redirects it to his football: “I have to work even harder for them.” This is the moment in the documentary that beautifully situates football in the larger human drama, which takes place both in and out of Senegal. To this end, I agree with Simon Akindes, Sadio Mané is both made in and out of Senegal.

Still, to really hear Sadio Mané, the person, requires turning down the noises and the cheers of celebration, as well as the clichés that connect dreams to success. It is then that you hear a child, a dreamer, who is so human, so relatable, and yet so unrelatable, so unreachably impressive, in his football artistry. I wish there was more footage of Mané playing football in the film. It would have reminded us that we are listening to not just a humble man sharing his journey to success and what he does with it, but to an exceptional athlete, among the finest the world has seen in years. And the two are inseparable. Still, we do get his excellence described by others. For example, Olivier Perrin, the man who “discovered” Mané (in Mané’s own words), shares his earliest impression of watching Mané play at a game in Senegal: “When I arrived he intercepted a ball in the penalty area and proceeded down the entire field before making the decisive pass to the guy who scored. It almost looked like…a video game. It wasn’t normal.”

A video game?! From all that I know of watching Mané play, I would have called it a work of art—a dream performance that one practices over and over in imagination that never quite gets corporealized, except, of course, by the likes of Mané. He challenges us to dream even bigger, before he makes it a physical reality performed on the football field. Adjectives like “abnormal”, “crazy”, “insane”, “unbelievable”, “impossible”, are used to describe the exceptional ability of Mané. It is not his football facility, but the simplicity with which Mané describes “the worst day of [his] life” that brings us closest to the child in him and the footballer in every child.

Throughout the documentary, he refers to dreaming of becoming a footballer. Already in the opening scene, we hear him say: “All I ever wanted to be is a footballer!” As the film unfolds, we get more detail about what becoming a footballer means to him. At first, a lot of this sounds like cliché: “You’ve a dream in life. My dream is to write history and win all the trophies. It’s a dream of a child, of course.”

Of course, it is a child’s dream. All the many football-mad children I have come to know would say just the same—they want to become professional footballers! They want to win all the trophies! And many of those dreams take on elaborate and sometimes very practical versions—from paying me back for my petrol as I give them a ride to the field to all that they might do or bring to their villages, once they become champions.

But here’s the rub: Mané’s commentary in the film is illuminating his childhood dreams with the benefit of hindsight, after he has actually achieved the “impossible.” His on-field performance may well inspire many more to dream, but dreams only go as far as an individual’s talent for a sport allows. If dreams are socially constructed, conviction is socially affirmed. Even before stepping out of Bambali, his home village, he “was considered the best player in the village, in the region, even.” Mané had people in his remote village affirming the exceptional football unfolding in front of their eyes. His best friend, Luc Djiboune, shares: “Sadio, like Ronaldinho, but also El-Hadji Diouf, who really spurred us on to play football. He told me: One day I’ll be at their level.” Later, Mané himself declares: “I was 100% convinced that once I left the village I could become a footballer. The only question was: How? That’s what I dreamt about.” His wizardry gets its first exposure at the Generation Foot (GF), the largest football training centre in Dakar, where Mané arrives in 2009, at 17 years of age. Mané spends about six months at GF and before his 19th birthday, he arrives in France as an intern with FC Metz. Reflecting back on his early games with FC Metz in 2011, Perrin exclaims: “He really played football like the greats.” Apart from an early injury that could have cost him this opportunity, Mané swiftly moves towards his stardom, leaving everyone in awe.

His football career progresses swiftly: from his first try-out at the GF in 2009 to FC Metz, then Salzburg FC, then Southampton FC, and finally to Liverpool FC and lifting the Champions League trophy in 2019; it cannot get better. I would argue that Mané is a prodigy—a wunderkind—not just a dreamer. While this point is only suggestive, not explicit, it is important to be reminded that his success was not simply because he was able to dream big, he was showing signs of his exceptional talent at an early age and was determined enough to follow through on them.

His story is also a fairtrade story, in which his labor is fairly and competitively rewarded, free of dodgy agents or exploitative conditions for an African migrant. We are told a story in which his on-field heroism is based on his merit alone. And just as Peter Alegi draws our attention to “a white man serving a black man” (as Mané’s agent Bjorn Bezemer does), we see and hear hordes of predominantly white Liverpool fans worshiping a black man. A kid in Liverpool reds with English Midlands’s accent speaks to the camera: “He’s fast, isn’t he? He’s like a lion—you won’t stop him till he get it [ball] to the goal!”

At least according to this documentary, Sadio Mané, extracted from Africa for the industry based in Europe (but followed across the world), is fairly treated and appropriately remunerated. But the fairtrade footballer brand of his goes further than that. And for this, we are taken back to Senegal, from Dakar to Bambali, in 2019. It is almost an hour and ten minutes into the film when Mané appears on the first floor of his village school and addresses the home-crowd: “I know you want many things. But education is the priority for our generation. School comes first. You should be in good health before you go to work. So, let’s finish the hospital.”

Just as the fairtrade accreditation demands, the whole of the community should benefit from the extracted export product, and the brand Sadio Mané does even that. The testimonies of his generous contributions to his village as he mingles with the people fills a warm and emotional feel to the closing scenes. His uncle shares in a slow and impactful voice: “His success has made us really win a lot of things.”

The story Mané tells us is almost villain-free. There are no bad guys, not even the football industry, as brutally competitive and cut-throat as it is; the film is sponsored by New Balance. Mané returns the love the football industry gives him. It is in his focus on education, schools, homes, and hospitals that we must extract the greater message: football is not necessarily a ticket to riches; Sadio Mané is exceptional.

I have come across nothing to dispute the genius of Mané, both on and off the football field, both as a footballer and as a person. Still, there is an irony to his message. At the age of 15, he secretly ran away from his village and school to pursue a career as a footballer. For two weeks, he stayed in Dakar without the knowledge of his family. He recalls: “The day I returned to the village was the worst day of my life. I felt hate for my family. I said ‘I’m returning to the village on condition that I only have one more year of school. That’s it!’ And they respected my decision.”

And in the long term, he respected theirs’. Born in a family of imams, he was not allowed to play football. He was expected to “be a good example” in the village by achieving success through education, not sports. Thirteen years down the line, after achieving success through football, after defying the expectations of his family, he addresses the crowd of young fans with the words: “education is the priority for our generation. School comes first.”

In these few words, there is pride and grounded awareness of his exceptional football talent and achievements. This is, indeed, an incredible story. He does set “a good example” in his village, but also for the celebrities of the world who seem to have greater influence on young people than any other institution: education and health are the priorities and celebrity earnings can be devoted to such superior causes.

Further Reading