It’s taken four tries, the Uefa Champions League trophy, a runner-up finish at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Premier League Golden Boot and an almost perfect first half of the 2019/20 season for Sadio Mane to finally be named African Footballer of the Year.
That the bar was – and needed to be – that high says a lot about the calibre of competition that stood in his way. Between them, Riyad Mahrez and Mohamed Salah had won the last three gongs, garlanded and holding their baubles aloft while Mane played the role of conscientious bridesmaid: toothsome, but with an underlying determination to finally catch the bouquet.
Neither of the two returned the favour this time. In the Senegal international’s moment in the spotlight, he was conspicuously alone; as he received the award, Mahrez was busy putting Manchester City two goals up on their mute and now-infirm neighbours United in the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final.
When Mane asserted during his private post-Awards photoshoot, “Am. No. King” (per CAF’s social media accounts), it was sort of fitting: every regent needs a court to attend him, after all.
To be clear, it did little to detract from what the Liverpool man achieved in 2019, even though it may have left the organizers feeling a little miffed.
Mane may have only placed fourth in the Ballon D’Or voting, but it was telling that even that finish was widely considered an injustice. No less than Lionel Messi, who claimed his sixth, was on board the Senegal international’s bandwagon, voting Mane to win ahead of his Liverpool team mate Virgil Van Dijk and, most tellingly, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
The common refrain, and perhaps the unanswerable football question of 2019, went thus: if Ronaldo and Mane had had their years reversed, would the placement have been the same?
Of course, there was an uncomfortable body-swap subtext to that line of questioning, but even outside the narrow brackets of profile and nationality, there were few in the calendar year who were as clutch as Mane, few as elemental to their team’s success whatever the frame of reference: club and international level alike.
The numbers bear this out, but also somewhat trivialize it.
The previous decade, more than any other, served to scramble all numerical context – context is, after all, better provided by scarcity, not abundance – and latterly sparked a rebellion against statistical analysis.
That said, 33 league goals in the calendar year for a Liverpool team that has accumulated more points than any other side, three goals for a Senegal team that came within a freakishly deflected strike of winning the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer, two goals in the Uefa Super Cup and five Uefa Champions League goals paint a pretty revealing picture.
However, it was not just about the figures; it never has been for Mane. There have been notable moments, and he has had them all over the world.
Most notably, there is a lot more to appreciate in the manner in which he made both Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer look absolutely ridiculous on their own turf, turning them one way and then the other, making the Allianz Arena blush a completely different shade of red for the European champions-in-waiting.
Sure the comeback against Barcelona was stirring, but it was that win in Munich that lit the fire, so to speak.
It was the ‘I want to believe’ moment, perhaps the first glimpse of the new Liverpool – able to bridle their emotions, to tame and subdue rather than simply swarm; and the charmer at the centre of it all was Mane, making some of the most accomplished players in the world dance to his tune.
And yet, his endeavour off-the-ball remains undiminished, and his humility underpins a team-centric worldview. When Liverpool alter their system, he reverts to the right and tracks full-backs dutifully, allowing Salah to remain high up the pitch; his selfless movement opens up space for the rampaging Andrew Robertson down the flank; he has repeatedly batted away suggestions of a rest: “Tiredness is all in the head,” he says. His faculties are keen as ever, and so are his feet.
2019 was the year when the world began to truly fear him. Where once there was respect, now there is now unabashed terror, and yet it is difficult not to love him. He does it all with a smile, finishes with precision, celebrates with a flourish. He unites uneasy bedfellows too: there will not be many things on which the Kop and El Hadji Diouf agree, but they share an appreciation of one of the most complete footballers in the game.
There seemingly is nothing that Sadio Mane cannot – and did not – do to a ridiculously high level.