Football is a game of 'what ifs', and surely few teams at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 know the truth of that more than Senegal.
What, for example, if Sidy Sarr had not scored two goals in the space of three minutes in their crucial qualifier against Congo? And what if Mamadou Thiam had suffered a bout of nerves as he lined up his shot against Colombia in the 1-1 Group C draw? Or what if Les Lionceaux had been unable to dig deep and turn things around in their 2-1 victory against Qatar? Well, for a start, Senegal would not have booked themselves a place in the Round of 16.
Third in their section, the African hopefuls were paired against Ukraine and competition top scorer Viktor Kovalenko in the last 16, and it was a question of 'what if?' once again as the game went to penalties at the end of a 1-1 stalemate. What if Ibrahima Sy had not kept out a total of three spot kicks, denying Kovalenko in the process? For the goalkeeper himself, however, the outcome was never in doubt. "I have a gift for saving penalties," he told FIFA.com. "I can't explain it: it's just something I have. On top of that, it's such a boost to keep goal for Senegal. I'm proud of that. I'm a true Senegalese, so I'm a warrior. I give everything for my people."
Given his career so far, that enthusiasm is understandable. Sy only ended up in goal after a twist of fate. Raised by his mother and aunts in Dakar, the youngster, nicknamed 'Ibou', started out in the game as a forward before first wearing the gloves in a local youth tournament. "Our goalkeeper pulled out at the last minute," he recalled. "I'd seen Fabien Barthez playing for Manchester United the day before and that inspired me. Since that day, I've never played in another position. But if you watch closely, I still have the instincts of an outfield player: I never stop coming out of goal."
I've been on the verge of the highest level for quite a while now.
In addition to his renown for coming out, he has another, less welcome reputation: for going out. Since his time in Marseille's training academy, which he joined as an adolescent, he has been saddled with the tag of a party animal, but it is one that he rejects out of hand, and one that he feared might threaten the evolution of his career. "It's nonsense," he said. "Those rumours are completely unfounded. I still don't understand it, and my family has suffered a lot because of it. I'm determined to set the record straight. I'm a very upright person and I've always been responsible."
'A true professional'That message certainly got through to Lorient, who brought Sy on board last summer before offering him his first professional contract in March. "I have to thank them," he said. "They put their faith in me. I've met some incredible people there, especially the goalkeeping coaches. The year ended very well because we won our amateur league championship. It started well as well because just after I arrived we won a tournament, on penalties. That just goes to show that there's no such thing as coincidences."
Despite his excellent performances for Lorient's reserve side, Sy was still some distance from a starting berth for Senegal as recently this year's CAF African U-20 Championship, the qualifying tournament for New Zealand 2015. Third in line under coach Joseph Koto, he was promoted into the first team after Lamine Ba and Seydou Sy both struggled in the continental showcase. "They're excellent goalkeepers and they were just unlucky," said the player now entrusted with the goalkeeping shirt. "My club experience perhaps played a role as well. I've been on the verge of the highest level for quite a while now. When I was just 16, I was taking part in training sessions with Marseille's first team."
A big fan of *OM *keeper Steve Mandanda, Sy now has a fan of his own in Koto. "He gives the whole squad confidence," said the coach. "It's very important for the team to have a keeper like him on the goalline. He's a true professional in everything he does, and that brings a lot of positives to our young team. At the base of every great team, there's always a great goalkeeper: it's a key position in any side. And if you look closely, the defence keeps growing in confidence each time he does something special."
Uzbekistan will provide the next test for Sy and Co on Sunday. After a tournament of 'what ifs', it appears that Senegal can finally depend on a sure thing between the posts as they target a semi-final spot.