It is silent on the packed bus. The atmosphere has suddenly changed. There are nerves. People are praying, using their fingers or beads to count. All you can hear are faint murmurs, WhatsApp pings and the rev of the engine.
The 150-strong Senegal fan group, le 12eme Gainde (the 12th Lion), are on their way to Al Bayt stadium, 50km north of Doha, where their team face England in the World Cup round of 16.
An explosion of green, yellow and red washes over the coach, every seat is taken, people stand in the aisle, heads bowed. At the back of the bus sit seven taciturn men. They each have a green letter painted on their white torso.
This is matchday with Senegal’s ‘Seven Letters’, musicians and dancers, the fans you will have seen on your TV so many times during this World Cup. It won’t be this quiet again. And it’s a lot of fun.
Upon entering the compound on Sunday afternoon, a man pokes his painted white chest out of the first-floor window. Others wearing Senegal’s colours sit in a circle outside, mending their drums while some take their last mouthful of theibouyapp, a traditional dish made up of spiced lamb, rice and vegetables.
A chorus of “All-ez, Sen-e-gal!” echoes around the residential area and Paco, a rapper and official mascot, roars “L’Angleterre sera des pommes de terres pourris!” (England will be rotten potatoes!). Wearing the fearsome head of a lion, he dances, almost possessed.
In a separate room, the president of the 12th Lion, Issa Laye Diop, stands on a green mat, arms by his side praying for victory. “We want to promote our country and show to the world that Senegal is the most important,” he says.
The 12th Lion, founded in 1996, started off as a small band and has evolved naturally, now consisting of 17 different-sized drums accompanied by trombones, trumpets, cymbals and tambourines.
The idea of the Seven Letters spelling SENEGAL began at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations in Mali, when now manager Aliou Cisse was playing and became integral to the 12th Lion’s identity. For 20 years the fan group has followed the team and their members from Senegal, France and Canada have flown to Qatar, the trip funded by the Senegal sports ministry and sponsors such as the mobile phone network Orange.
In a bedroom upstairs, the two-hour painting process has already begun. The two artists, cousins Omar Gomis and Jean Mendy, who have been with the team since its inception, follow a methodical process.
Starting with the letter S followed by the E, N etc, each torso is covered with a thick layer of white paint. They then wait 15 minutes for it to dry before applying the green capital letter in the same order.
Each man has his letter. There is no swapping unless someone is ill or cannot travel. There are two substitutes but they haven’t come on the trip. The role requires loyalty, commitment and desire.
“It’s a lot of fun, we do it with determination,” Papa Abdou Aziz Dieng says, the green letter S emblazoned on his chest.
“We don’t do it for one person, we do it for Senegal. It’s not our names written on our chest, it’s Senegal.”
Papa, a local council worker with a wife and two children, has been the letter ‘S’ for 18 years.
“I started with the 12th Lion in 2002,” he says as his neckline is painted green. “I was young, I supported the team, I rose up the ranks and then because I was the tallest, I got the letter (two years later).
“Every time Senegal needs us, we leave everything and come. Nobody pays us, we do it voluntarily. For each tournament, we ask our employer’s permission.”
“I have never missed a match,” says Saliou Sang, letter E, while a layer of green paint encircles his wrist. The 28-year-old father of three is a court employee from Dakar.
He joined at a similar time to Babacar Sylla, a retail trader and letter N. Babacar was too young to travel with the group initially but he showed his loyal support.
“It’s not irritable for my skin,” he says as the artist, paint pot in one hand, brush in the other, adorns the first band of green on Babacar’s right bicep.
“When I wear the paint, I feel proud to represent my country. I’m not a soldier, I didn’t go to the army, but I represent my country. Senegal gave us security, health and education. We have to wear our national colours and represent the 17 million Senegalese people.”
Modo Diouf, the second E, is about to have his face and eyelids painted white when Paco, the mascot, bursts into the room, singing. President Issa then comes in shouting, “It takes an hour to get to the stadium, hurry up!”
The artist reassures him, there is a method to the madness. Starting with the letter S, each one takes his turn to have a strip of green painted on each arm, followed by a strip of yellow, then red.
Letter G, Babacar Diouf’s first match was against Gambia in 2012.
“It was all that I had dreamed of,” the cameraman for Senegal TV channel Walfadjri says. “I am proud. My role is to sing, show the word Senegal and be recognisable.”
Each letter has equal significance, explains letter A, Baye Sow, a builder whose ripped chest is on show.
“Physicality isn’t important,” he says, the elastic of his grey boxers poking just above his baggy Senegal pants, pockets deep enough to store their phones and ID cards.
“We don’t do weights. Willingness, desire and loving what we do is the key.”
Letter L, Mor Gueye, a welder, is a new recruit who joined in January this year.
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) December 4, 2022
“To become a letter, firstly you have to be from Senegal,” says the Seven Letters’ co-ordinator Ibrahim, who briefly stepped in after the previous letter ‘L’ couldn’t commit to the travel.
“When we call them up, they have to have shown their support to the players. It’s not just anyone, they need to be the right height, physically and mentally strong to stand for that period of time, reliable, polite and a role model for our country. You can’t cause disruption. It’s like a casting.”
Tambourines jingle as some become impatient. The two-hour preparation is nearly over. The Letters line up in order. With a finer brush, the artists, who brought more than 50 paint pots from Senegal, add the finishing touches, a green speck to reflect the star of the Senegal flag on each arm and a rougher dappling of tri-colour fingerprints on each face.
Night has fallen, drums can be heard below and the black brims of the 12th Lion hats shine, the Seven Letters, adorning their country’s colours from head to toe, stand proud… in a bedroom.
The 12th Lion group fills two coaches, instruments are put in the luggage compartment under the bus and toy lions are placed on the racks overhead. We leave the accommodation at 6.15pm, slightly later than president Issa had planned. He is on edge.
The eerie silence is a stark contrast to the hubbub of the bedroom and their outfits’ vibrancy. The Senegal colours can be seen everywhere from beautiful headbands, earrings, bracelets and scrunchies to the more subtle eyeshadow and nail varnish patterns.
About 50 minutes later, as we approach the stadium, voices become louder and the excitement builds. The Letters form a horizontal line and walk to the venue singing and clapping, attracting selfies on the way.
— Charlotte Harpur (@charlotteharpur) December 4, 2022
Instruments pass through security and the band goes ahead, trumpets alerting the crowd. They walk up the stadium steps to the beat of the drums. At 8.15pm, puffing their chests out, standing with their hands behind their back, the Seven Letters take their place in the front row in line with the penalty area. They are flanked by their female vice president, flag bearer and mascot Paco.
The dancers and musicians spread out over seven rows, making sure they have enough room. The drum roll commences, eardrums are ringing and the movement starts. A step to the left, arms to the right, step to the right, arms to the left, it’s a hypnotic sway which makes you feel alive. During the Senegal warm-up, the players wave and the noise goes up a level.
Senegal bringing the noise 1hr before kick-off.
— Charlotte Harpur (@charlotteharpur) December 4, 2022
Half an hour before kick-off, the Seven Letters take a seat and the band pauses. Cracks in the paint underneath the arms start to appear such is the intensity of their armography. Pears are passed around as a refreshing snack for the dancers.
As the teams come out, the fans ululate and scream, holding their flags aloft. When the Senegal anthem is played, the Seven Letters stand immobile in salute.
The referee’s whistle blows, barely audible among the wall of deafening sound. The dance restarts, different routines blend into one another. A couple of Qataris come to sit in their seats but quickly move on when they realise this band will never stop.
On the rare occasion Senegal enter the England penalty area, there are screams of excitement. When England are on the attack, piercing ululations ring out. They dance with ferocious energy and if not, Seynabou Niang, a matriarchal figure with bulging eyes, gives those who are idle a death stare.
In the 31st minute, the dancers, distracted, momentarily stop. Senegal’s No 9 Boulaye Dia pulls the trigger, forcing England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford into a save. “Oohhhh,” they shout.
Back to the beat and the sway, step to the left, step to the right.
England’s advances are becoming more threatening and when Jordan Henderson opens the scoring, the dancers miss their step. But the drums keep beating, the conductor raises his hand to up the tempo again.
Harry Kane’s goal just before half-time renders the dancers immobile, however. The drums drown out the England cheers but some of the 12th Lion have their heads in their hands and sit down. The matriarch is not impressed and shouts at them to rise again.
At half-time, everyone takes a breath and sits down to rest their feet. Other members of the crowd want to experience this energy but each Senegal fan needs two seats so they can move freely.
The band kicks off again in the second half, the dancers have a new lease of energy only for England’s Bukayo Saka to deal the killer blow in the 57th minute. Even the matriarch is defeated and sits down.
There is a lack of vigour among the group now as their team trails 3-0. The Seven Letters, however, keep up the energy, leading from the front. By the 75th minute, the matriarch is back on her feet. A Senegal cutback into the England box halts the sway for a moment of anticipation but Gareth Southgate’s men remain too resolute at the back.
As the full-time whistle blows, the band stops, the sway halts. For the first time the letter S, Papa, breaks out of his role. He takes off his hat and scratches his head. The band of seven stand still in disappointment.
The cracked paint peels from their body and they put their 12th Lion jackets over their bare chests.
“It’s not the end of the world,” says letter G, Babacar. “It’s fair play. The best team won. It’s a wonderful experience.
“I thank God for giving me this opportunity, there are Senegalese people who couldn’t come. It was worth it!”
The Seven Letters head back to their accommodation where they take a 30-minute shower and use soap to scrub off the paint before going to bed. Senegal’s World Cup run has come to an end, but the 12th Lion traditions will live on for many years to come.
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