It would have taken the dreamiest, most imaginative scriptwriter to craft Senegal’s 2002 World Cup story.
After all, how the Lions of Teranga fared in their maiden appearance at the global showpiece could only occur in fantasyland. Or so we all thought.
The sight of the Senegal staff and substitutes running onto the pitch at the final whistle of their opening Group A game against France at a packed Seoul World Cup Stadium lives vivid in the memory, despite the two decades that have passed since.
The images of supporters grinning in disbelief, hugging and jumping up and down in the stands will never be forgotten in the West African nation.
Senegal were thrown into the metaphorical lion’s den in their first game at the finals and were not given a prayer against the defending world and European champions France.
Bruno Metsu’s Senegal team went into the 2002 World Cup ranked 42nd in the FIFA Men’s Ranking, fifth among Africa’s five representatives at the global showpiece and second-bottom among the 32 nations in the competition.
They could simply have been happy to be there and enjoy 270 minutes of football across three games. They could have opted to play within themselves and demonstrate the inferiority that their ranking suggested.
While that would have been the expected turn of events, it would have denied observers one of the great World Cup stories against the tournament’s highest-ranked side.
France unsurprisingly dominated possession in the early stages of the opening game, but Senegal held firm, conceding few chances until David Trezeguet hit the post after combining with Thierry Henry in the 22nd minute. It was the first of three times the woodwork will be rattled in Seoul.
Eight minutes after Les Blues went close, the Lions of Teranga’s colossal moment came.
18 years ago today Papa Bouba Diop scores and Senegal shock France in the opening game of the World Cup.
Thierry Henry, Michel Platini, Vanessa Paradis… your boys took one hell of a beating.pic.twitter.com/yrbvXRib1m
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) May 31, 2020
Papa Bouba Diop, of blessed memory, got the acclaim, while the part played by the menacing El Hadji Diouf — then-African Footballer of the Year — should not be diminished.
Yet it was Omar Daf’s contribution that ought to have received even more plaudits, having recovered possession in the middle of the park and released Diouf.
The defender spotted Youri Djorkaeff wandering away from the crowded midfield zone into the right half-space but briefly stayed in situ, opting against immediately closing down the attacking midfielder… until Patrick Vieira was about to release the ball to the playmaker.
Daf instantly pressured Djorkaeff, who had no idea the defender was onto him, duly winning possession and releasing Diouf on the left flank.
The soon-to-be Liverpool forward, who had already left Marcel Desailly for dead in the game’s opening stages, skipped past Desailly’s struggling centre-back partner Frank Leboeuf and sent a low ball to Diop from the byline.
The onrushing midfielder benefited from a huge slice of fortune after a muddle between Emmanuel Petit and Fabian Barthez to scoop the ball home from a yard out to send the West Africans 1-0 up on the half-hour mark.
“It wasn’t a pretty goal, but it was a very important one,” the late Metsu remarked years later.
Senegal players’ ensuing jubilation — dancing around Diop’s shirt by the corner flag — has become one of the competition’s iconic celebrations. It was undoubtedly fitting.
France upped the ante especially after half-time, but the defending champs could not get past Tony Sylva whose goal seemed to lead a charmed life at times.
There were still a few chances for Senegal, though – and only the crossbar prevented the West Africans from adding some gloss to the final score when Khalilou Fadiga rattled the frame after another swift attacking transition just after the hour.
Despite Henry hitting the bar from his favourite inside-left channel two minutes after Fadiga, a debuting side consisting of a near entirely French-based squad held on for a historic victory.
“I dreamed of this match, thought about this match and now it’s come true,” said Senegal’s French coach Metsu. “It’s a great reward for our players and the Senegalese people. We had a tactical game plan and you have to feel satisfied when it comes off.
“We left Diouf up front on his own and deliberately blocked them in midfield. When you are up against a team like France, you have to adapt. I said before this tournament that we were not going to be the Jamaica of this World Cup. Today we proved we are a serious team.”
Les Bleus boss Roger Lemerre praised Metsu and Senegal’s Golden Generation in defeat.
“My friend Bruno Metsu came up with a plan, as I knew he would,” the coach said. “Collectively and individually they stopped us.”
Recalling what was an unexpected defeat for France years later, Leboeuf, who had a torrid outing against Senegal’s roving attackers, admitted the African nation merited that success.
“We played against Senegal in the first game of the World Cup and they were completely outstanding,” Leboeuf recollected in April 2022. “As much as we respected them, they were very good and they deserved to win.
“It was a shock for France. Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it goes against you.”
Rather than sink after that shock opening game triumph, the Lions of Teranga thrived and avoided traps of self-satisfaction.
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They ended Group A unbeaten, securing draws against Denmark and Uruguay, the latter of which ended 3-3 despite the African side racing into a 3-0 half-time lead.
The side was far from boring and their threat in attacking transitions was not limited to that encounter against France.
A goal-of-the-tournament contender against the Danes demonstrated the debutants’ counter-attacking danger.
Henri Camara, a half-time arrival, prevented Martin Jorgensen from going past him in the right-back zone, and what happened in the following 14 seconds saw Salif Diao peg the European nation back.
Camara played a positive, progressive pass to Diouf on the right wing, whose one-time flick was sent to the eventual goalscorer. Diao’s first-time pass found Fadiga and the playmaker drove forward in possession, surveying his options.
Fadiga then slipped the towering midfielder in and the subsequent outside-of-the-boot finish was admirable.
It's the anniversary of Salif Diao finishing off a Senegal wondergoal at the World Cup against Denmark. Liverpool fans were excited when the saw this.pic.twitter.com/JFag2ubhU6
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) June 6, 2020
Finishing second set up a meeting with Sweden rather than England in the round of 16, where a Camara-inspired brace turned around Henrik Larsson’s opener to claim an extra-time success.
The fact the Swedes hit the post minutes before Senegal’s golden goal added to the African nation’s mystique at the finals.
While their journey ended with the concession of a golden goal against Turkey in the last eight, Metsu’s men had matched Cameroon’s 1990 achievement by becoming only the second African nation to make it that far.
That Roger Milla-inspired side had defeated the reigning world champions Argentina in their first game and the debutants 12 years later walked a similar path.
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Metsu had issued a challenge in the aftermath of that France win, calling on his players to aim even higher in East Asia.
“We have got to make sure we come down off our cloud and get our mind straight for our next two games,” the Lions of Teranga boss said after that unforeseen 1-0 victory.
“It won’t mean anything to get a good result against France and then go out of the tournament with three points.”
Senegal heeded their manager’s words and went on to record a history-matching African feat on the world stage. It could barely have gone any better than that for such a talented and fearless group.