Sadio Mané can't stop smiling. His smile is infectious and honest and it glistens across the screen, greeting me as if I was a childhood friend, not an interviewer. We haven't even exchanged a word and I already know what I presumed all along, it's impossible to not like him.
Sadio Mané can't stop dreaming. The euphoria from winning the Africa Cup of Nations with his beloved Senegal is still with him, and it's a feeling he doesn't want to say goodbye to just yet.
"I can't explain to you how happy I am winning this trophy for my people," says Mané, speaking to ¡Qué Golazo! ahead of Liverpool's Champions League knockout stage matchup against Inter Milan (you can catch all the action live on CBS and Paramount+). He is quite literally in a state of wonder.
"Sometimes I think I am dreaming, and when I look up, there is always a smile on my face, so it's incredible."
I playfully remind him that it's not a dream, it's not trick of his subconscious. It's real. He just smiles and replies, "I think so!"
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Mané's wonder isn't about the realization of winning a trophy, or at least not just about winning a trophy, because silverware to him is about context. Of course it matters. It mattered two years ago when he helped Liverpool win the Premier League for the first time in 30 years, and it mattered when he lifted the Champions League trophy a year before that. He cares deeply about the fans and what they meant to the community. So trophies are not just about the victory, it's about what it represents, and for him to win his continent's biggest honor for the first time in Senegal's history, its the biggest jewel of them all because it awarded a vision he had never seen before. All those videos from Dakar you watched on social media? The open bus being greeted by thousands of fans? The manic, jovial celebrations? They were existential moments for Mané. He experienced them in awe, in joy and reflection.
"You can see in the videos just how happy people are. This was so, so, so long. My people have been waiting for so long. I can even say that there was no hope because Senegal never won this so [it seemed] impossible," says Mané. "I grew up with this in my mind, but I always said it to myself, I think I am going to win and make it with my friends so when we went to AFCON in 2019 and we didn't win it, I was a little bit down, but I am always working hard. Always believing…I never doubted myself."
Even when Mané was walking the longest mile in his journey, the dreaded penalty shot in the shootout, the one that would decide the outcome of this finale after Edouard Mendy performed admirably to get to this point, it was down to the Liverpool star to bring it home. It was especially more dramatic as he had already missed in regular time. Senegal were awarded a penalty early in the game and Mané naturally stepped up. His Liverpool teammate and Egyptian star Mohamed Salah walks up to his goalkeeper Gabaski with some notes. "Salah told me: 'Mane would shoot to the right side, he is coming now because he knows what I am saying,' said Gabaski, speaking to MBC Egypt.
"Mané told me that he would shoot the ball on the left side, but Salah replied to him saying, 'We'll see... let's make him punish you'. And it was a smart and correct response from Salah," said Gabaski. Mané confirms he was just playing mind games with Gabaski because the moment he saw him talk to Salah, he wanted to make sure he could also have some control of the situation.
At the break, therefore, when it was 0-0, it was important for Senegal to keep their composure and ensure the usually-optimistic Mané to still be in the right state of mind.
"Most of the time, when I miss a penalty, I am down," remembers Mané. "But this game was completely different. I think because of experience and wanting to win it for my people. It gave me more motivation to go on and believe. When I missed the penalty, my teammates came to me and said, 'Sadio, we lose together and we win together. We don't care if you miss a penalty. We just keep pushing.' This gave me extra motivation to keep going and when we went again for penalty kicks all the players came to me before I went to take it and said, 'Sadio, we are all behind you. Just go. We trust in you, so go and make it.' I think this made me forget all the stress, all the pressure, and when I went to take the [winning ] penalty, I was focused, as it was the least breath of my life!"
New Balance, who he has a great relationship with, surprised him with some unique cleats ahead of the tournament and this was also a symbolic gesture of resilience. The Teranga lion on the heel was a nice touch. "It was a nice surprise, a gift. We also made a special video and it meant a lot to me." The video shows Mané describing his journey and how he, in many ways, signifies the representation of a lion. He's determined, courageous, hungry for more. "The video said, 'this is my time," and I think it was a good sign for me!" says Mané. "I love the boots. They're my lucky boots."
For the record, Mané and Salah are totally fine. They're very close after all. Mané did confirm they don't really speak about the final, but it's more out of respect for each other rather than anything else. It's a mutual admiration that carries itself further than a game. Even as big as the final. They did, however, talk about the missed penalty and the Gabaski moment, laughing about it in training a few days ago. Salah wanted to know why Mané felt like he needed to walk up to him and his keeper while talking. " I just wanted to play mind games…I wanted to be more fun… so I said if you're playing mind games [speaking about Salah] then I'll play mind games," says Mané. "Don't worry Mo! I will put it on the right side."
That's the only thing that's been discussed. Aside from congratulating each other, for them, it's now time to look ahead.
Sadio Mané is thankful. This AFCON trophy, for him, is a representation of his journey.
"This is the best and the most [important] so far," says Mané, his smile still ever so present. "After winning the Champions League, two or three days of happiness and then I am fine. I become normal, but this one? It does not feel normal for me! It's been eight days now but I remember everything about it and that's why it feels so special. This trophy to me is…even better than any other trophy. I don't know, maybe I will win something else, the World Cup? But even then I don't think the World Cup will be more special than this one! I can't explain how happy and how proud…and how much this trophy means to me."
Sadio Mané is kind and humble. This is the other part of this story that you need to know. When he talks about "his people," he is also referring to himself and his arduous path, which started in the small village of Bambali, within the south-western city of Sedhiou. I won't tell you everything he went through to get to this point because he doesn't want this conversation to be about that. The focus should be on the now and the next. In fact, he is not comfortable with the limelight, not in the way that others want it. They are naming a stadium after him and he is thankful but the focus, as he always wants it to be, should be on the people. From building a hospital and school in his hometown to donating towards constructions of mosques and covid-19 relief, there is always an objective. To help his people rise.
"I was born in a very, very small village and I grew up there. I think doing these things comes naturally and for me it's normal to help these people because they need it ," says Mané. "Usually I don't like to talk about it, but I have to say, even you would do the same. This is something for me, which is the most important thing to do. I always want to do my best for those people because…they need it."
This was the hardest part of the conversation because he is a person who believes in the necessity of gratitude and kindness. It's not an act for him. He doesn't want a story about it. In fact, his agent might ask me to remove this paragraph if you haven't read it already. For Mané, humanitarian work should be as straightforward as breathing because we are all after all, human beings. There is no gimmick. There is only selflessness.
Sadio Mané is not done.
Now comes his work with Liverpool and the tasks ahead. There's the Premier League title, despite the large lead taken by Manchester City, as it remains an objective and the return of the Champions League, of course, and a Round of 16 date with Inter Milan.
"We know that Inter is one of the best in Europe," says Mané. "Especially in Italy. They're going to be Champions probably, so facing them won't be an easy game. We expect a very, very tough game ... we want to play this kind of exciting game. We are Liverpool. We're a good team with good players so it will be a really interesting game. We are looking forward to it and for sure our target from the beginning. We want to win the Champions League and I know it won't be easy but it's possible so before winning you have to face one of the best."
"You want to win the best, you have to be the best."
He loves his time with Liverpool. They're another family to him. Luis Diaz has been a fantastic addition to the squad as Mané is just getting to know the Colombian after returning from AFCON. They get along as they're both similar in personality.
"I've spent two, three days with him and he's a very, very nice guy. For sure he will do great for Liverpool because he's so, so talented and he's very humble. A very hard-working player."
I ask him about his Spanish. That's where he needs help.
"Un poco!" he says, smiling.
I ask him about the fact that Diaz's arrival also means yet another attacker in the Liverpool lineup. Does this worry him? Is there such a thing as too much competition in a Jurgen Klopp squad? How does the German manager keep everyone happy?
"I don't see it as competition," says Mané, laughing about it. "I see it as making each other better players. If you want to be a great team you need these kinds of players. We are really happy to have these kinds of players and for sure, we're going to win and Liverpool will win from it. You think about the Champions League and Premier League…which is great for us as players and for the club, and for the fans. I think everyone knows Klopp is a great manager. He is used to this situation, making sure everyone is happy, and for sure he will keep doing the same."
"We have the best fans in the world so it's amazing to hear people singing your name on the field."
There is no big Senegalese community in Liverpool. No more physical memories of his AFCON triumph on Merseyside but for Mané, this doesn't matter. He is a man who values the solidity of his roots, knowing full well that the streets of Bambali are never too far away.
He smiles one more time, leans back and replies,
"I feel like I'm home so it's fine."
You can hear the entire interview on the ¡Qué Golazo! podcast and make sure to check out the ¡Qué Golazo! YouTube page for more great content.