Senegal had been dominating all game, but it was in trouble in the 67th minute at Khalifa International Stadium on Tuesday night. Ecuador had just tied the game with a dramatic goal, and a draw would have eliminated Senegal from the World Cup.
But even without its star scorer Sadio Mané, who has been out since before the 2022 World Cup with an injury, Senegal did not fear. In less than three minutes, it answered when its captain, Kalidou Koulibaly, knocked in a rebound from a free kick for the go-ahead goal in a 2-1 victory over Ecuador that sent Senegal to the knockout stage as the runner-up in Group A.
“An amazing moment for me and the team,” said Koulibaly, 31.
No African nation advanced to the round of 16 in the 2018 tournament. Senegal, the Africa Cup of Nations victor, is the first from the continent to do so in this tournament and perhaps not the last, with Morocco and Ghana in good position going into their third games.
Senegal has now reached the knockout stage twice in three World Cup trips. On Sunday, it will play England, which won Group B after beating Wales, 3-0, on Tuesday night.
“Millions of Senegalese were watching us, and we gave it our all,” midfielder Pape Gueye said in French, adding that the victory was “historic.”
The Netherlands, which beat the tournament’s host, Qatar, 2-0, on Tuesday, won a tough Group A with 7 points — one more point than Senegal. On Saturday, it will face the United States, the second-place team in Group B after beating Iran, 1-0, on Tuesday. Cody Gakpo, a breakout star for the Netherlands, led his team with his third goal of the World Cup, tied with France’s Kylian Mbappé and Ecuador’s Enner Valencia for the most in the tournament.
Valencia, the Ecuadorean captain who started Tuesday despite leaving the previous game with a knee injury, couldn’t lead his team past a Senegal squad that controlled the game in terms of pacing and shots.
Senegal forward Ismaïla Sarr scored on a penalty shot in the 44th minute after he was fouled by Ecuador defender Piero Hincapié in the penalty box. Sarr stutter-stepped as he approached the ball and appeared to look to his left while kicking the ball right, past the frozen Ecuador goalkeeper, Hernán Galíndez.
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As part of his celebration, Sarr raced over to a section with drumming Senegal fans, made a heart sign and then buried his face into a teammate’s shoulder as they hugged.
But in the 67th minute, Ecuador answered and threw Senegal’s efforts into doubt. Off a corner kick, Ecuador’s Felix Torres out-jumped his opponents and redirected a ball toward teammate Moisés Caicedo. And with a flick, Caicedo sent the ball past Senegal goalkeeper Édouard Mendy. Senegal’s deflation didn’t last long.
“We didn’t want to leave this World Cup with any regrets,” Koulibaly said through an interpreter after the game. He added later:
“Thank God I was in on that and putting it in the back of the net.”
Koulibaly was in the right place at the right time. After a Senegal free kick was rebounded by Ecuador toward Koulibaly in the penalty box, he chipped the ball into the goal for what turned out to be the game-winner in the 70th minute. Koulibaly, a defender, later noted that it was his first goal in 67 games representing Senegal in international play. From the sidelines, Senegal Coach Aliou Cissé rejoiced.
“We knew that a draw wasn’t enough,” he said through an interpreter. “The fact that he could score the goal was exhilarating. Soccer is an emotional game.”
Senegal last reached the knockout stage in 2002, when Cissé was the captain of the team. It knocked off Sweden in the round of 16 but lost to Turkey in the quarterfinals.
Koulibaly said “two thirds of the world doubted we would qualify” after losing Mané to injury. Now, Koulibaly said the mission was to “go as far as we can.”
He said the team had been inspired by several people, including the Senegal soccer legend Papa Bouba Diop, who died two years ago, and Mané, who Koulibaly said had sent the team a message of support before the game.
“We can do something good,” Koulibaly said. “We want to write our story about Senegal football.”