My piece for the Aspirer on Senegal at the 2002 World Cup
Playing the reigning World and European champions in your first game and at your first World Cup isn’t ideal.
Top that off with a South American side with plenty of history and a solid European team and the script doesn’t look so good. Those were the odds facing one of Africa’s five representatives in the 2002 World Cup. Many other sides would have folded and followed the script verbatim.
Senegal, or the Lions of Teranga as they are known, weren’t ready to submit to the script.
The 2002 World Cup had many interesting subplots leading up to it; redemption for Brazil’s Ronaldo, the first World Cup on Asian soil and the possibility of repeat World champions in the form of the French. Few would’ve expected one more story to arrive in such exciting fashion from Senegal. France, Uruguay and Denmark were their opponents and few gave them a chance to progress. Led by French coach, Bruno Metsu, Senegal’s team weren’t the starry-eyed inexperienced side many made them out to be.
The majority of the side played with teams in the top two French leagues such as Auxerre, Lens and Monaco. Most were in their prime, with Soulemayne Camara the youngest at 19 and Amara Traore the oldest at 36. Goalkeeper, Tony Sylva, had a chance to show his shot-stopping skills, the defense was led by the rock solid Lamine Diatta and the midfield boasted the powerful trio of Salif Diao, Papa Boupa Diop and Aliou Cisse. Up front is where the excitement lay, though. Reigning African player of the year, El Hadj Diouf, was full of pace and creativity while the likes of Henri Camara and Khalilou Fadiga were capable of engineering exciting moments.
The Lions of Teranga were also coming off their best finish in the 2002 edition of the African Nations cup, remaining undefeated until losing out to Cameroon on penalties in the final. A strong team spirit, work ethic, power, pace and creativity were what held the side together. That would be on display in what was to be a fantastic World Cup performance.
First up, France.
The reigning champions would be without their talisman, Zinedine Zidane, but many expected nothing less than a French victory. The players were also of same mind, with some discounting the fact that their opponents, who were from a French-speaking nation, would offer much resistance.
Senegal, smartly, set up with a 4-5-1 formation to stifle the French. Even without Zidane the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Thierry Henry and David Trezequet had to be held in check. The score was still 0-0 when Trezequet, released by Henry, hit the post and left Sylva standing. Only a few minutes later Diouf was sent free down the left hand side and beat Frank Leboeuf before placing a dangerous low cross into the path of the onrushing Diop. The midfielders first shot was stopped by Fabien Barthez but, quick to react despite sliding on the floor, Diop bundled it in. Cue shock and pandemonium, and a celebration that warmed fans across the globe, bar France, of course.
There was still an hour remaining though and the French tested Sylva, and the crossbar, a few times but failed to find the back of the net. Zidane could only look on in bemusement. Fadiga had a chance to lengthen the lead after a nice solo run down the left but he too hit the crossbar with a ferocious shot. As Lilian Thuram launched one more ball into the box the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of first game of the World Cup. Three points in the bag for Senegal and zero for their illustrious opponents.
Denmark were the next opponents for this giant-slaying side, and they were determined not to follow a similar fate to their European counterparts. The Danes had the services of Martin Laursen, Jesper Gronkjaer and Jon Dahl Tomasson and had beaten Uruguay in their first game. Senegal were lucky not be down a man early on after Fadiga kicked out at an opponent in retaliation to a tackle. A shoving match ensued between the sides but order was restored and the game resumed.
It was the Danes who struck first after Diao bundled over Tomasson from behind to give away a penalty. Tomasson coolly slotted away the penalty to Sylva’s right, despite the keeper guessing correctly. Sixteen minutes in and the Lions were facing their first bit of adversity in the tournament. Things could have gotten worse just a few minutes later as Tomasson beat Sylva again only for the goal to be called off for a handball from the forward. Replays showed that the call could have gone either way. Bullet dodged, Senegal started to come into the game more and create a few chances themselves.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Africans got their reward with one of the best team moves of the tournament.
Camara, on at halftime to spark things in attack, won the ball deep in his own half and quickly launched the attack. Two passes later and Senegal were in Denmark’s half and bearing down on goal. Diao made amends when he finished off the move by latching onto a through-ball and poking it past Thomas Sorensen from close-range. There were no more goals in the game but Senegal were forced to end the game with 10 men after Diao ended an eventful outing with a red card. Two games down, four points for Senegal and progression was looking likely.
The final group game came against a Uruguayan team that needed to win to have a chance at progressing. The South American side followed up the loss to Denmark with a draw against France but wouldn’t have expected what was to come.
The Senegalese, fearless, jumped out to a 3-0 lead by halftime.
Diouf continued to be a nuisance to opposition defenders, and in the 20th minute he anticipated a poor back pass to the Uruguay goalkeeper. With one touch he got past the keeper and was then pulled down by the keeper. Penalty. The Uruguayan defenders were incensed as it seemed Diouf had actually dived to fool the referee. Replays show there was little to no contact. The decision stood and Fadiga stepped up to dispatch it with confidence to put his side in the lead. A few minutes later Boupa Diop returned to the forefront to emphatically dispatch a shot from the edge of the box following a quick counterattack. The South Americans were reeling. Things would get worse as Diop scored his third and final goal of the tournament with an acrobatic effort inside the box. Again, the decision was questionable as the midfielder seemed to be slightly offside with his run.
Uruguay weren’t ready to give up though and immediately after the restart they found themselves on the scoreboard.
Richard Morales pounced on a rebound to sweep home his side’s first and the comeback was one. The South American’s continued to push as Senegal finally showed signs of creaking. In the 7oth minute, Diego Forlan scored one of the goals of the tournament with a majestic shot on the volley to beat Sylva from outside the box. A draw looked inevitable as the pressure continued and it eventually came with another dubious penalty, this time for the Uruguayans. Alvaro Recoba followed Fadiga’s lead and beat Sylva to tie the game 3-3. The result was still enough for Senegal to finish second in the group and progress. The fairytale continued.
A round of 16 tie against Sweden was next for one of the surprise teams of the tournament. Senegal were the only African team left but few expected them to get past a side that won a group including England, Argentina and Nigeria.
Sweden, like their Nordic counterparts Denmark, weren’t going to be upstaged and came out on a mission. Their early pressure paid off as a mistake by Sylva, possibly still rattled by letting in three against Uruguay, allowed Henrik Larsson to head into an open net from a corner. Senegal almost hit back instantly through Bouba Dioup but he was, rightly, flagged offside. They didn’t have to wait long though as Camara, provider of two goals against Uruguay, created some space on the edge of the box and found the bottom corner with a very accurate shot. There were no more goals in full-time for either side so to extra-time, and golden goal, we went.
The Europeans increased the pressure and were unlucky not to end the game first. A beautiful piece of skill by Anders Svensson inside the box left his defenders for dead only for his shot to rattle the upright as Sylva looked on. Senegal responded with Diouf again weaving his magic only to drag his shot wide. Just as he had in regular time, Camara came to Senegal’s rescue with a somewhat fortuitous finish inside the box after being slipped through by Diao. The Lions of Teranga had matched the feats of Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions over a decade ago.
An African team was in the quarterfinals. Turkey, another European side, were the opponents there, having beaten one of the hosts, Japan, to make it through.
Senegal were still up to the task and gave their opponents a few scares early on. Camara was ruled offside after smashing the ball into the net from close range while Fadiga hit the side netting from just inside the box. It was then Senegal’s turn to feel the pressure as Omar Daf, a key performer at left back throughout, had to clear the ball of his line to deny Yildiray Basturk. There were few clear-cut chances for either side for the remainder of the game but Diouf came close with a free-kick from close range.
Extra-time beckoned again for the second time for the Africans and, crucially, the first time for Turkey. The European side had more energy than Senegal and that proved vital on a counterattack early in first half of extra-time as Ilhan Mansiz finished off a nice move with a well-taken strike. The fairytale had ended but Senegal had little to be upset about.
Over the course of five games Senegal scored seven goals and conceded six. All those games were closely fought against, on paper, superior opposition but only one of those games ended in defeat. There were no bowed heads after the loss to Turkey though as everyone’s favourite team left the tournament to widespread praise from the footballing world. There were mixed reactions in Senegal though, with the press and some former players criticizing Metsu’s selections after the loss to Turkey. Common sense prevailed in the end, as the players were welcomed home as the heroes they were.
The aftermath of their World Cup performances meant many of key players in the team moved on to new pastures.
Diouf, the undoubted star of the team, who was also selected to the tournaments all-star team, had the highest profile move to Liverpool and Diao joined him there. Sylva eventually made his way to Lille and carved out a solid career there. Boupa Diop moved first to Lens then had adventures with Fulham and Portsmouth among other teams. Cisse made it to England as well, with Birmingham City and Portsmouth his first two destinations. Camara found himself at no less than seven British clubs and his time at Wigan was arguably his most successful.
None of them ever returned to the heights that they did in that tournament, and neither did Senegal. The Lions of Teranga have yet to feature at a World Cup since 2002 and haven’t impressed on the continent either. That may change with a group of players very similar to the ones that made history over a decade ago. Still, being the second African team to make a World Cup quarterfinal amidst very tough odds is something that squad will always be remembered for.