Senegal represents the hopes and dreams of New York’s West African community this weekend. The country’s soccer team — after upsetting France, the defending champion and the former colonial ruler in the opening game — has advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup tournament, and the mood of excitement has spread throughout the immigrant community.
SENEGAL STUNNED France — and its subsequent wins has left it as the sole representative of Africa’s soccer prowess in the quarterfinals.
Most expatriates will be cheering them on Saturday when they play Turkey. The game, which will be played in Osaka, Japan, will be broadcast at 7:30 a.m. ET.
At the Malcolm Shabazz Market in New York City, shops overflow with colorful West African clothes, jewelry and stationery. This is also were many West Africans congregate.
“Ah, the game on Saturday, I can’t say yet who will win… . Turkey is a good, strong team,” said Zibo Amadou, who works in the Harlem market. But then, he paused for a moment before continuing: “Ahhh… we (Senegal) will win!”
Amadou is not Senegalese. He came to the United States five years ago from Niger, the country north of Nigeria that is in the heart of the Sahara. Like many Africans here, he is rallying behind Senegal in its struggle to win the top soccer prize.
As soon the conversation turns to the World Cup, a group of men from Niger, Mali, and Senegal gather to discuss the attributes of the different teams. “All of us Africans are for Senegal,” said another Niger native, Mamane Sahabi, speaking in French, the language commonly used in the market.
In the melting pot that is New York City, the block of West 116th Street clearly belongs to the West African community. Men and women parade down the street in the colorful, traditional West African style of patterned tops, skirts and headdresses for women and bright prayer gowns with matching slacks for men.
Restaurants serve African specialties like foutou (yams) and peanut sauce or grilled fish and rice. Shops sell everything from discounted phone cards to call Africa to the dried hibiscus leaves to make a juice commonly sold on streets from Dakar to Abidjan.
SOCCER AT ALL HOURS
Around the corner from Sahabi and Amadou’s stand, Mory Kante from the Ivory Coast was slumped over his cassette stand half asleep. His cousin, Moussa Conde from Guinea, laughed as he explained that Kante had been up since 2 a.m. watching the World Cup.
Kante jolted awake to explain that he had to get up at 2:30 a.m. to watch the match between Japan and Turkey that determined who Senegal would play in the quarterfinals.
As West African pop music played in the background of their CD and cassette boutique, Conde explained that even though neither of them was from Senegal, they were united behind them.
“Once only one African team is left — Cameroon, Nigeria, Tunisia, and South Africa ... they are all out — all the African countries become one block of support. It has become a pan-African sentiment that we all support Senegal,” Conde said.
‘TRULY WONDERFUL’ VICTORY
For the Senegalese, anything beyond their victory over France is amazing, but not surprising.
“The Senegalese victory over France was a big event — truly wonderful,” said Moctar N’Diaye, a Senegalese man living in White Plains, N.Y.
In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, the city erupted in joy after the national team’s 1-0 victory over France in the first round. Thousands danced in the streets as President Abdoulaye Wade rode through the city in a motorcade. Some people called the victory the greatest day in Senegalese history since the country gained its independence from France in 1960.
The Senegalese say they are extremely proud of their win over France, but they also coolly say that they are not surprised by their team’s success at the World Cup.
One explanation is the new global nature of international soccer. Many of Senegal’s players compete in France during the regular season and return home to Senegal to wear their national jersey for big tournaments such as the World Cup and the Africa Cup.
El Hadji, a 50-something Senegalese bag salesman on the corner of 86th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, attributed Senegal’s success to the professional experience of the players.
“They play in Europe everyday, so they are used to playing at this level. They can beat any team on any day of the week,” said El Hadji, who has attached a large green, yellow, and red tricolor Senegalese flag to his car.
InsertArt(1547470)As for the West African women in New York, they, too, say they are backing Senegal, but they have not been avid fans because of the late hours of the games. Most World Cup games are played in the early hours of the morning on the East Coast of the United States, because of the time difference to the tournament stadiums in South Korea and Japan.
“I am very interested, but I’m tired at 2:30 a.m. So, I’m asleep,” said Yvonne, an Ivorian working at the Motherland Hair Braiding shop at 125th Street.
But fans are already preparing for victory.
“If the Senegalese win the World Cup, there will be a big party and we will all be there. But, they have won yet!” said Awa, another Ivorian woman working at the hair-braiding shop.
Kante and Conde, the two men at the CD shop at the Malcolm Shabazz market, laughed when asked whom they would root for if Senegal met their adopted country, the United States, in the finals of the World Cup.
“Ah, I don’t know,” said Kante, smiling knowingly.
Conde was more diplomatic.
“I would want the best team to win,” he said.
Petra Cahill is an NBC News assignment editor.