The smile was profound, the joy was overwhelming as Sadio Mane’s name was called out by Patrice Motsepe for the final award of the evening in Rabat.
In truth, another African Footballer of the Year accolade was not in doubt for the Bayern Munich new-boy following his individual and collective success since the turn of the year. The now iconic moment where he dispatched a rocket-propelled penalty past nemesis Mohamed Abou Gabal lives long in the memory and will not be forgotten in a hurry.
‘Gabaski’ had thwarted the Senegal talisman early doors, denying the Teranga Lions the opportunity of doing to them what Algeria had done to the West African nation in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations decider.
The nerves were apparent as the eventual shootout ensued, with Mane pacing up and down away from equally nervous teammates. Edouard Mendy — one of the three nominees for Thursday’s biggest award — even saved a penalty, a collector’s item in its own right, helping to set the stage for one of the Bayern star’s biggest career moments.
The man himself disagrees, instead ranking the honour higher than the 2019 Champions League success with Liverpool and the Reds’ maiden Premier League triumph a year later.
“I am very proud and I think it is the best moment of my life ever,” the Senegal star said after the Afcon success over Egypt. “This day I think is the best.
“I won the Champions League and some trophies but I think this is the special one for me, this is more important for me.”
In a sense, you understand why he places Afcon success over anything he has won at every club he has represented. Senegal were defeated finalists in 2002 and 17 years later in 2019, and the pressure of being third-time lucky must have weighed heavily on their best player’s shoulders.
That burden was lifted with ferocious aplomb, sealing the Teranga Lions’ first continental success at the third time of asking.
The following month, Mane was at it again, this time scoring another decisive spot-kick against the same opponents after it ended 1-1 on aggregate. While he had not scored in both legs against Egypt, the then-Liverpool forward fashioned two of Senegal’s biggest chances of the night, both spurned by Ismaila Sarr.
It sent Senegal to their third World Cup finals at Egypt’s expense and the first time they would make the showpiece on successive occasions, following their participation in 2018.
Frankly, Mane was the deserving winner of Thursday’s honour. While Salah may have dominated the first few months of the period under consideration — September 2021-June 2022 — his erstwhile Liverpool colleague raised the bar at the turn of the year to seal continental success and a World Cup place.
The upshot of the aforementioned, as well as domestic cup success in the League and FA Cup at Mendy’s expense and nearly going all the way in the Premier League and Champions League meant the attacker had a second Footballer of the Year laurel in his sights.
Indeed, it was incontrovertible and the Bayern forward becomes the 10th African, joining Salah as the only active player, to win the award more than once.
“I am so excited to win this award, Mane told Caf online afterwards. “There are so many players that deserved this award, but I have been chosen.
“I am honoured and I thank everyone for this.”
The humility was expected from the 30-year-old, as observers have become accustomed. Thus, it was no surprise when the attacker yet again played down royalty talks on Thursday, just as he had done after 2019’s triumph.