Think of great fairytales in World Cup history and what usually comes up? West Germany beating Hungary in the 1954 final, England winning on home soil in 1966, Cameroon beating Maradona’s Argentina in the first game in 1990, and of course, Senegal.
When we talk about it, it doesn’t even need a date, or indeed an explanation. Just saying ‘Senegal’ brings a knowing nod and smile from anyone who remembers the 2002 World Cup. It’s a wonderful share experience, the product of a bizarre tournament where nothing seemed to go according to expectation. Despite the turgid football and refereeing blunders, it was a tournament those who watched will never forget, and Senegal’s remarkable run is at the heart of it.
Before it begun, as with most major modern tournaments, the World Cup had its own hype machine, but Senegal had little part to play, other than as plucky underdogs facing the mountainous task of trying to overcome the world and European champions in the first game. France were supreme at this point in time. The core of the 1998/2000 team was still together: Barthez in goal, Desailly and Leboeuf at the back, Lizarazu and Thuram bombing forward, Vieira and Petit as the axis in midfield, Zidane pulling the strings, Henry up front. They were still regarded as the best team in international football, and had won the 2001 Confederations Cup on home soil.
That many of the key players in the team were the wrong side of 30, including all of the first choice back four, was little cause for concern. However, with Zidane struggling due to a pre-tournament injury, and Christian Karembeu and Robert Pires ruled out entirely, it was known that they wouldn’t be at full strength straight away.
In contrast, there were few household names in the Senegal squad, whose qualification ahead of the North African powerhouses of Morocco, Egypt and Algeria had been a major surprise. Despite having finished as runners-up in the recent Africa Cup of Nations, it was anticipated that the pressure of playing on the biggest stage would be too much for them, or that they would not have the quality to compete with France, Denmark and Uruguay; no points and a quick exit were expected.
All 20 outfield players selected by Bruno Metsu were based in France, with only the two back-up goalkeepers playing elsewhere. It was also quite a young, inexperienced squad. One of the back-up keepers, Omar Diallo of Moroccan Olympique Khouriga, was the most capped player in the squad, but even he only had 42 caps and wouldn’t start a game due to the presence of Monaco’s Tony Sylva.
The captain would be Montpellier’s defensive midfielder Aliou Cisse. Their trump card was El-Hadji Diouf, a rising star for Lens, who provided the squad with four players in total; the others would include Pape Sarr, Ferdinand Coly, and Papa Bouba Diop. The oldest player was 36-year-old striker Amara Traore of Gueugnon.
In the first game against the champions in Seoul, Metsu chose to set the team up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Cisse sitting behind Bouba Diop and Sedan’s Salif Diao, who had recently been signed by Liverpool. Another Sedan player, Moussa N’Diaye, would form the counter-attacking threat down the flanks with Auxerre’s Khalilou Fadiga, who had recently been arrested for stealing jewellery from a local store, while Diouf would be alone up front. It was a side that seemed almost certain to be set up for a scrap.
It proved to be a game that suited the Senegalese players perfectly; they weren’t the most capable technically, but they didn’t need to be. Metsu got his selection spot on. He knew that France could be stifled in midfield and attack, and that their ageing, slowing defence would struggle when facing the pace of Diouf and Fadiga.
It was a superbly disciplined defensive performance, starting in midfield, where Bouba Diop, Diao and Cisse outmuscled Petit, Vieira and Djorkaeff, while Coly at right-back nullified the threat posed by Henry, and the full-backs seemed reluctant to get forward, perhaps frightened due to Diouf’s pace when up against Leboeuf and Desailly. Some generous refereeing from Emirati referee Ali Bujsaim allowed some of the more physical tackles to go unchecked, which further served to help the Lions.
Even so, Trezeguet still found enough space to get a shot away from the edge of the box in the 23rd minute, and Sylva was forced to watch as it smacked the post. It was a let-off, but moments later, Vieira managed to escape the midfield and headed a long ball from Petit into the danger area, but mercifully for Senegal, it was behind Trezeguet and in front of Henry. France were getting their act together; BBC co-commentator Joe Royle remarked ‘the goal’s coming.’
A few minutes later, Royle was left stunned; ‘well, we said the goal was coming, John,’ he said to lead commentator John Motson, ‘but we thought it would be to the team in blue.’ France had been building slowly from the back, but Djorkaeff, who had been totally anonymous, was caught in possession by Daf, and the left-back played a lovely through ball to Diouf, who for once got in behind the France defence without being offside. Leaving Leboeuf on his backside, he got to the goal line inside the box and pulled it back for the charging Bouba Diop, whose first shot was parried straight back to him by the sprawling Barthez, leaving him an easy tap-in.
As Lizarazu appealed in vain (I’ve no idea why he thought it was offside), Bouba Diop ripped off his shirt and began one of the iconic World Cup celebrations, as the whole team joined him at the corner flag to dance around the sacred jersey. This was exactly what they wanted, not only for pride but because it was what the game plan required. Senegal could now have no qualms for getting as many players back as possible to defend.
There were minor scares in the remaining 15 minutes of the first half, such as the occasional run from the threatening Trezeguet and Henry, a Djorkaeff free-kick which was well-saved, and a few long range efforts. But it seemed the most likely way France would score would be if the enthusiastic Senegal keeper came off his line once too often. Les Bleus would require a serious mistake to find an opening, though that didn’t seem unlikely. After all, this was only Senegal.
In reality, the second half would take much the same form as the first. France created a few half-chances but lacked spurned everything that came their way, particularly with crosses and set pieces where they genuinely looked a threat. Meanwhile, at the other end, the influential Fadiga hit the bar with Barthez beaten in the 65th minute, before Henry copied him moments later from the edge of the box. At the time, this would still have been too close to call, but it would prove to be as close as the two teams would get to scoring again.
Roger Lemerre introduced Christophe Dugarry for the lacklustre Djorkaeff after an hour to try and change things, and then switched Wiltord for the young Auxerre striker Djibril Cisse, but it all felt rather academic; France looked lost through the middle without Zidane’s spark and flair, while the man himself looked lost on the sideline. The moment of magic France required to dig them out of this hole failed to materialise.
Lemerre had been out-thought by the other French coach on the day. Not only that, but Senegal’s starting 11 lasted the whole game without tiring. Questions would later be asked about the French players’ fatigue after a long European season. But on the day, it seemed fairly simple: France created few chances, and Senegal had taken their best one. For all the stereotypes, Senegal had been fantastically organised and irritating, and France couldn’t find a way through the wall of white shirts or past the presence of Sylva, who hadn’t played a single league game for Monaco all season.
The next game saw a 1-1 draw with a strong Denmark side, who had seen off Uruguay in the first game; Salif Diao scored a fantastic counter-attacking goal to cancel out Jon Dahl Tomasson’s opener, before being sent off for collecting two yellow cards. With France and Uruguay drawing 0-0, Senegal needed only a point from their final group game against the South Americans to qualify.
It nearly went horribly wrong. Senegal led 3-0 at half-time, with Fadiga converting a penalty and Bouba Diop scoring two more. It was a magnificent performance against one of the tournament’s dark horses. But then complacency seemed to set in, and the Uruguayans nearly took full advantage. Substitute Richard Morales pulled one back just after half time, Diego Forlan smashed in a wonderful second, and Alvaro Recoba converted an 88th minute penalty to bring them level. But they could not find a fourth, and Senegal went through in 2nd place behind Denmark, three points ahead of Uruguay and four ahead of the reigning champions, who flew home having failed to win a game.
In the next round Senegal would be drawn against Sweden, the winners of the hotly-contested Group F ahead of England, Argentina and Nigeria. Metsu opted for a different approach for this tie, selecting Henri Camara and Pape Thiaw up front along with Diouf, and Amdy Faye joining Bouba Diop and Cisse in midfield in place of Alassane N’Dour.
It took a wonderful save by Sylva to deny Olof Mellberg early on from a beautifully-worked short free kick, but it didn’t take long for the goal to come. While Anders Svensson whipped in a corner, Henrik Larsson managed to position himself in front of the keeper, and the Celtic striker headed into an unguarded net. Eleven minutes in and things already looked bleak.
But Senegal responded magnificently. Bouba Diop tapped a Diouf cross into the net but had just strayed an inch offside, which the assistant referee had spotted. Undaunted, they continued to press and were rewarded in the 37th minute when Camara brought down a Diouf flick-on with his chest, avoided some Swedish defenders and fired a low shot past Magnus Hedman into the bottom corner. It was a magnificent goal from the Sedan striker, providing a glimpse into his future in the Premier League.
The remainder of the game was an even battle. The best chances fell to Sweden: Allback volleyed into the ground and nearly beat Sylva, while young substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic nearly scored a magnificent solo goal before again being denied by the Monaco keeper. But it would finish 1-1, the game heading into golden goal extra time.
Sweden looked to be the favourites, and nearly scored a truly golden goal: a volleyed Larsson cross caused Senegal problems and fell to Anders Svensson, who spun magnificently go avoid the lunging Lamine Diatta before smashing the ball goalwards. For a moment, it seemed destined for the top corner, but instead it smacked the post and the Southampton midfielder was denied his moment of glory.
But as half time beckoned, Senegal got the reward for their persistence. Camara was set free by a wonderful backheel from Thiaw, jinked past some yellow shirts, and sent a scuffed left-footed shot trickling past the hapless Hedman onto the post and in. It wasn’t the greatest finish ever, but it was enough to make Senegal only the second African country to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Turkey were the next opponents, and it was another eminently winnable game for the Lions. Diao and Fadiga returned in place of Faye and Thiaw, but the formula remained much the same. However, this was a disappointing game compared to the previous encounters, with Senegal seemingly finally running out of steam.
They nearly took the lead 19 minutes in when a long throw from Coly caused chaos in the box. A strike from Fadiga seemed goalbound, but was blocked by Camara, who was offside, and the resulting tap-in was ruled out. Meanwhile, at the other end, a dramatic goal line clearance from Daf preventing Yildiray Basturk from giving Turkey the first goal.
The match again ended level, and by now the effects of playing 104 minutes in the previous match were starting to show. A counter-attack down the Turkey right 94 minutes in ended with Umit Davala crossing to Besiktas striker Ilhan Mansiz, who swept the ball across the goal and out of the reach of Sylva to score the last ever World Cup golden goal. Ilhan had come on as a substitute; Metsu hadn’t used any of his, and this lack of rotation and change throughout the tournament ultimately cost them a place in the semi-finals.
But for Senegal, though they were defeated in the end, the World Cup had been a remarkable triumph. The Lions had put their country onto the international football map with one of the great underdog performances in the competition’s history.
And individually many of the key players did well out of it too: the team’s performances led to increased interest in Senegalese players, with Diouf (later crowned 2002 African Footballer of the Year), Fadiga, Diao, Coly, Bouba Diop, Camara, Cisse, Faye, Diatta and Habib Beye all playing in the Premier League in the years after. Though Senegal are yet to qualify for another World Cup, the 2002 team have left an incredible legacy for their country.
This article was written by James Bennett. You can follow him on Twitter.