Sadio Mané was made in Senegal but he was also made outside Senegal. Born and raised in the remote Senegalese village of Bambali, Mané did internalize some of the values cultivated and promoted in villages across Africa: respect for family and elders, gratitude, humility, generosity and sense of collective responsibility. These values are amply exhibited in his actions: his assertion “When I am in Senegal, I am never alone. We live as a community” resonates with me. I am not romanticizing village life, but cooking, eating, working, playing, and doing other things together are still common behaviors, with regional nuances. This community spirit might also imply that since he left Senegal for a career as a professional footballer (with stops in Metz, Salzburg, Southampton, and now Liverpool) he has primarily lived in more individualistic societies in Europe, where practices of neighborliness, family, and friendship differ.
In the new documentary film, Sadio Mané: Made in Senegal, an indefectible spirit of hospitality, transactional and reciprocal, between extended family, the Muslim community and himself is demonstrated wherever Mané goes, in Dakar or his hometown Bambali. In Senegal, this façon d’être, in public and private spaces, is known as teranga, a Wolof term and concept to signify a welcoming character, friendliness, solidarity, togetherness, and mutual understanding. This concept has been branded by Senegalese tourism authorities to symbolize Senegal where food, tourism, and even corporations name themselves after the term to consolidate their identities and polish their images.
Mané’s humility, respect for self and others, and his altruistic values are pure products of his village and Muslim upbringing. In Bambali, an individual is not bigger than the collective and giving back or passing goodness on is a societal norm. His uncle, a simple farmer, supported his passion and took care of him in his adolescence. Now Mané, out of gratitude, rewards him with a house and a transportation business.
An umbilical cord connects Mané to his people and to Senegal as a whole, a country which has yet to win the Africa Cup of Nations (they’ve appeared in two finals; 2002 and 2019) despite having produced high caliber, world-famous players prior to the Mané generation, such as Boubacar Sarr, Oumar Gueye Sène, Christophe Sagna, Aliou Cissé, Jules Bocande, Yatma Diop, and El-Hadji Diouf. (Other footballers born in Senegal like Patrick Vieira and Patrice Evra have represented France.) Mané captains the Senegalese team, which roots him firmly in the national psyche. He is the ultimate symbol of Bambali pride, but also of national identity. As his Liverpool teammates observe, Mané is hardworking, laser-focused on success, performance, and winning; values that capitalism loves for its hegemonic narratives, and values that most Senegalese need to survive. Liverpool’s sponsor, sports equipment manufacturer New Balance (they produced the film), is aware millions are watching and following him. Therefore, Mané naturally fits the role model narrative, a subtle and circumvented way of admonishing “If you’re failing, it’s because you’re not doing like me.”
Mané’s mother, Satou, appears onscreen twice: first, fleetingly in a phone call that lasts twenty-five seconds, and the second time in a quick scene where he has another phone conversation with her. The mother figure occupies a central place in African athletes’ lives and they profusely praise them, but it surprisingly not the case with Mané. She does not even feature in a third-person story. Mané has mentioned his mother in other interviews, but often to indicate how she disagreed with his passion for football, and how she was so emotional that she would not watch his games. Also absent from the film are Mané’s brothers and sisters. All of them have been eclipsed by the uncle who facilitated his making it outside of Senegal.
But how was Mané made outside Africa? First, he took advantage of an outward-oriented channel, the football academy Generation Foot, from Dakar to the French Ligue 1 Club Metz. African players have followed similar paths since imperial conquest. This process of “muscle extractivism” empties Africa of its promising stars and leaves behind a football structure that cannot fulfill the minimum aspirations of players and other involved in the game. More than 525 Senegalese players are currently plying their trade outside of Senegal, and in the years 2018-2019, more than 203 players have left Senegal. This phenomenon favors local and foreign-based football elites and officials, and politicians who cash in on such success, neglecting the rest and leaving in its trails an inadequate and unorganized football structure. Mané acknowledges that “many skillful players I played with did not get the chance to become a professional.” One should wonder what happened to both the skilled and the average players who dreamt like him? Narratives such as Mané’s hide and even silence the stories of the vast majority who are unsuccessful.
Second, the film does not provide any information about the football academy ecosystem in Senegal, even though Génération Foot has a partnership agreement with Metz that finances the academy’s operations in exchange for the rights to recruit the best talent and take the young men to France. Mané spent six months at Génération Foot before being “discovered” and its director, Mady Touré, proudly states in the film that “my objective is to bring as many players as possible to Europe.”
Third, the film indirectly raises the question of the utility of Mané’s model of building a school and a hospital for the community. To what extent will these structures help Bambali solve their economic and social problems in the long term? Can his model be widely emulated? Can it reduce the gap between Bambali and Dakar, between urban and rural areas? I doubt the model will create a viable football industry in Senegal. Can Senegalese football develop through charity? Furthermore, a few important stories are missing from the film: the role of marabouts, especially in Casamance where African spiritual beliefs and practices are strong; political tensions (Casamance has experienced an independence-seeking rebellion since 1982); racial experiences in European football, and how Senegal “makes” its players.
Sadio Mané, Made in Senegal is a beautiful commercial, well crafted, and very incomplete story, built around a t-shirt wearing, humble Sadio, with flashbacks into his past, from Bambali to Liverpool. However, the story perpetuates a perennial, powerful, enduring illusion: one has to get out of Senegal and Africa to make it. It is an illusion that, with other factors, stifles the growth of local sports (not just soccer) and the blossoming of different football styles and identities. It contributes to the standardization of football, reducing it to the measurable outcome of winning and the production of statistical data. With about half the documentary focused on Mané’s prowess and achievements in Europe, the most powerful message of the movie could just as much be “Sadio Mané, made outside Africa.”