Even if only one team can be the winner of the FIFA World Cup, it does not mean that the other 31 sides cannot bring inspirational stories to the table. In fact, they are really the ones that really show resilience and grit and prove that anything is possible in football, with the proper motivation, the hard work put in and the right calls made in crucial moments.
In fact, this is exactly the type of story that makes the FIFA World Cup so exciting and worthy to watch, and Qatar 2022 duly delivered in this aspect, with some motivational stories, heart-warming in their own respect, as players fulfil their lifelong dreams by breaking ceilings and delivering excellent performances.
One of those players is Iliman Ndiaye, a 22-year-old Senegalese player, who had to fight for his career, climb on the ladder and finally seize his chance and represent the country of his choosing, after a long way paved with setbacks and difficulties. For him, it mattered less that Senegal were eliminated after a 0-3 loss against England in the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022. Only the fact that he was there, was just a huge achievement, after two years ago he featured in the seventh English league.
He is called a ”maverick” and a player with brimming potential, but he has never played in the first league of a country. Yet his journey took him to France, Senegal and then the lower English leagues, until he shined at Sheffield United, in the Championship, with his performances earning him a call to Qatar 2022.
Born in France, 22 years ago, Ndiaye was the only boy in a family of eight and, just from the start, his parents knew he was destined to be a football player. His first steps were not in football, but rather in futsal, where he displayed his excellent technique, even being dubbed the ”new Zinedine Zidane”, thanks to his outstanding flair.
He was scouted by French giants Olympique Marseille, where he spent four years, but the ascension was tough. His father, his role model and a dance choreographer, learnt him the moves, but also decided that it would be better for Iliman to move back to Senegal, in Dakar, to complete his football education.
But the little Iliman never forgot about his stint at Marseille, who stayed always in his minds.
“I’m an Olympique de Marseille fan. I dream of going back there to become a Marseille legend. I can’t stop thinking about it. And even if it’s not now, if it’s in several years, I will continue to work,” said the Senegal player years later.
He came back to Europe, but not in France, rather than in England, aged 14 years old and found it even harder to find a place to grow. Eventually, he signed for fifth-tier club Boreham Wood, where his potential was absolutely clear whenever he took on the pitch.
Soon, Ndiaye caught the eye of better clubs and signed for Premier League side Sheffield United, but was deemed too inexperienced to be thrown in the fight. He made his debut in 2021, but the club relegated and he started getting more and more time in the Championship, the second English league, where he scored 16 goals in 52 games in the last two seasons.
Yet sandwiched between these achievements, Ndiaye’s ascension started with Hyde FC, where he was loaned, cutting his teeth in the seventh English league, where he asked the groundsman of the pitch not to turn off the lights, as he wanted to get more time to refine his skills.
“The reason I fought for Iliman is because he’s got unreal ability with the ball plus the work ethic and tactical awareness to go with it. There is no one in our league who can look after the ball like Iliman,” said his manager from Sheffield, Paul Heckingbottom, according to “The Independent”.
“It’s because of how he’s applied himself, how hard he works and how he responds to the coaching. He’s got a hunger in his belly and you can work with him to improve his game and challenge him mentally if you don’t think he’s doing things well enough and he responds,” added Sheffield’s manager.
That hunger, probably partly motivated by that desire to come back to Marseille, is what drove Ndiaye. And now, after an excellent 2022, he made his debut in the Senegal’s national team, committing for his parents’ country.
He has featured in three matches at Qatar 2022, playing 145 minutes, before Senegal was eliminated by England, the country he plays in. But at only 22 years old, Ndiaye’s career is just taking off.