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DAKAR: When pre-tournament no-hopers Senegal shredded the form book by reaching the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals in South Korea, 10-year-old Sadio Mane looked on in amazement.
His childhood idol was El Hadji Diouf, the peroxide blond attacker who was causing havoc among defences at the global showpiece, starting with reigning champions France.
Senegal stunned Les Bleus in the tournament opener in Seoul, held Denmark and Uruguay and overcame Sweden to make the quarter-finals before falling to Turkey.
Weariness, more than any football deficiency, cost the 'Teranga Lions' a chance to become the first semi-finalists from Africa, and the squad returned home as national heroes.
Now the roles are reversed with retired Diouf singing the praises of Liverpool goal-poacher Mane as Senegal get set for a second World Cup adventure 16 years later.
Mane is considered the key figure in the squad, which he joined after playing for Liverpool against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
While the scoring exploits of Egyptian Mohamed Salah stole the show all season, Mane has also starred in a "Fab Three" strike force completed by Brazilian Roberto Firmino.
When Salah had to leave the field injured in the Champions League final, Mane took over the bulk of attacking duties and scored Liverpool's only goal in the 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
Diouf, who is campaigning for Morocco to host the 2026 World Cup, has told the Senegalese media that Mane could emulate Liberian George Weah and be crowned World Footballer of the Year.
"This humble young man has the world at his feet," stresses Diouf. "The World Cup in Russia offers him a chance to demonstrate just what he is capable of.
"I believe Sadio can be one of the stars of the tournament and go on to win the Ballon d'Or next year.
"Provided he has self belief in his talents, the very least Sadio will achieve is a top-three finish in the World Footballer of the Year."
Diouf never reached that peak, but he did win the African Footballer of the Year title in successive years.
A star of few words, Mane responded by saying "playing for Liverpool offers wonderful opportunities.
"At 26, I still consider myself young football-wise and there is so much that I have yet to learn."
Humility aside, Mane surely realises that his is the first name written by Senegal coach Aliou Cisse when filling out the team sheet.
His form is pivotal to the hopes of the west African nation, starting with Group H fixtures against Poland, Japan and Colombia.
Blessed with attackers
Poland and Colombia are seeded to reach the round of 16, but Senegal at their best are capable of beating either of those teams, if not both.
Slightly built Mane is an exception in a squad full of physically imposing figures like Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and West Ham United enforcer Cheikhou Kouyate.
Up front, Senegal are blessed with an abundance of talent with Keita Balde of Monaco, Moussa Konate of Amiens and Mbaye Niang of Torino among those competing to play beside Mane.
The belief of many pundits is that Senegal boast many outstanding individuals and how well Cisse harnesses them will determine how far Senegal go in Russia.
Mane began his football career, as many Senegalese teenagers do, at the Generation Foot academy and his first European club was Metz.
When they were relegated to the third tier of French football, he joined Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg, then made his English Premier League breakthrough with Southampton.
At the 'Saints', he scored a 176-second hat-trick during a 6-1 rout of Aston Villa and it was only a matter of time before one of the English giants came knocking on his door.
That club was Liverpool in 2016, and in his first season at Anfield Mane was voted the club Player of the Year and the Players' Player of the Year.
In the season just ended, Mane continued to star, scoring and creating goals, wreaking havoc with Salah and Firmino and lessening the blow of losing Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona.