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Senegal are more than their ‘pace and power’

Senegal beat Poland in their World Cup match not because of their physicality, but because they were the better team.

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Poland v Senegal: Group H - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It was very confusing watching Senegal play against Poland. Before the game even started, commentators like Slaven Bilić deduced that Senegal needed to rely on their “pace and power” to have a chance against Poland. Yet once the game began, it didn’t seem to bear out.

Senegal outplayed Poland and won, 2-1, by playing direct, composed soccer, relying on sharp passing and technical dribbling, while barely allowing their opponents anything on the other end. It was Poland, in fact, that employed long balls and physical play later in the second half to give themselves a way back into the game.

As annoying as it always is, it’s never surprising to see commentators fall back on coded language when they have to discuss black players, especially Africans, in soccer. Before Senegal had even kicked the ball, they were being described not by their skill, creativity, or their decision making, but with the standard words you hear about African teams: Pace, power, physicality, raw talent, tactical naivety, disorganization, swagger, and all the other terms that are part of the same old language that pretends to compliment black players by reducing them to their physical bodies and derides them for not mentally understanding the game. It’s the historical idea of the black man as a senseless brute, repackaged in sporting language.

It’s such an expected trope that there’s even a bingo card for the terms and phrases:

It’s not that black players can’t be fast and powerful, it’s that in soccer, too often, it is the only thing they can be. Many players in world soccer are fast and powerful, but they’re not crushed into that purely physical box in the manner that their black counterparts are.

Look at Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, who earned a free kick in the second half against Senegal after he beat one defender by kicking the ball past him and running to it, and then won the foul by outpacing a second defender. When Poland started playing long balls, Lewandowski held off multiple defenders on his own, and often barged them off the ball to win possession or give himself space and time to pass to his teammates. Lewandowski is 6’1 and listed at 175 pounds. He’s fast, big, and strong. But he will never be reduced to those attributes, because he’s allowed the opportunity to be a fully fledged human being, something that Sadio Mane too often isn’t.

Pro Soccer Talk’s review of the game includes this line: “Poland struggled all game against the pace and physicality of Senegal”, which is an absurd line for anyone who watched the game and saw Senegal creating chances through direct passing and movement. A breakdown of why Senegal could win games at the World Cup described their greatest strength as: “pace all over the field, and power in the positions that require it.” While Poland were said to have the best striker in the world, Senegal had “pretty devastating pace and power on the break.”

Because Senegal were said to not have a creative midfielder in their ranks, “they rely heavily on the pace and power of their front four.”

Search any of the Senegalese players names with “pace and power” on Google and you’ll see how lazy and standard this stereotype is. Watch LFC described Mane’s performance against Poland thus: “Sadio Mane has put in a fantastic shift for Senegal today. Pace, power, dribbling ability, and his sheer passion to win.”

Keita Balde was a good transfer target for Tottenham because at Lazio, “his pace and power unsettled defenders.”

A scouting report on M’Baye Niang concluded he drifts inside and uses “his pace and power to maximum effect.” Diafra Sahko is a “combination of power, pace, and an increasingly ruthless edge.” Cheikhou Kouyaté has “plenty of pace and power in his locker.” Kalidou Koulibaly should be “able to handle the Premier League’s physicality thanks to his pace and power.” Mame Biram Diouf was slated to start at fullback for Stoke in 2017 because of his “pace, power and tenacity.” Ismaila Sarr is only 20 years old but “possesses explosive pace and power.”

Look beyond Senegal. You can do this for almost every relatively known black player in the world. Paul Pogba’s debut for Manchester United “was a performance of pace and power.” Michy Batshuayi gets chances at goal because his “pace, power, and determination mean he’s regularly in dangerous positions.” Danny Rose’s “pace and power in either a full back or wing back role has been a huge reason for Spurs’ continued progress over the past two seasons.” With, pace and power,” Marcus Rashford, “will cause problems for any defence he faces.” Ruben Loftus-Cheek? Pace and power.

If you take away the words “pace” and “power” from writers and commentators, they would be utterly lost trying to describe black players.

Senegal upset Poland by scoring from a deflection and a ridiculous second goal — which was created by a mental error from ... Poland — but they also outplayed their opponents for most of the game. Poland hardy ever threatened them. It was a performance that included intelligent passing and great off ball movement — as well as moments of pace and power. There were sequences of 15-plus passes that resulted in opportunities, and also the first goal came after Niang overpowered a Polish player to keep the ball in play.

Yes, Senegal has pace and power. They also have creativity and brilliance and team cohesion and organized defending and smart passing. Senegal was the better team for a variety of reasons, not simply because they were the stereotypical idea of black soccer players.