The joy and despair of a superb Senegal side at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations

The joy and despair of a superb Senegal side at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations

THE STORY OF Senegal’s 2002 World Cup campaign is well known. Yet the origins of their remarkable odyssey in the Far East goes back four months to a story told far less – the Africa Cup of Nations.

Qualification for the tournament in Mali was straightforward, with Senegal easily dispatching Uganda and Guinea, finishing second behind Togo in their group. Morale was high within the national camp while preparing for Africa’s premier tournament. Bruno Metsu had done much to improve the team’s fortunes since taking on the job in early 2000.

Metsu began recalling players that the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF) saw as rabble-rousers. Moreover, he called up new players to his squad, bringing a youthful exuberance to the fold. One player to fit the bill was El Hadji Diouf. The young forward had a habit of getting into trouble, such as minor bouts of indiscipline while at Sochaux as a youngster, but also at Rennes where he was convicted for driving without a licence and underwent community service.

Metsu saw Diouf as a rough diamond, giving him his debut for Senegal in April 2000 – and he soon justified his call-up. Throughout 2000/01, Diouf was outstanding in the World Cup qualifiers, scoring eight goals in as many games in the final group stage. His goals were instrumental in sealing qualification for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, which included two hat-tricks against Algeria and Namibia, in addition to scoring the vital winner to beat Morocco.

As the Africa Cup of Nations in Mali approached, there was an air of confidence within the camp. Metsu, over the last two years, had built a tight-knit squad who were committed to each other and their manager. Their defence was resolute as well as tough, conceding just two goals in their World Cup qualifying group. Their midfield was as robust as their defence. The towering figures of Salif Diao and Papa Bouba Diop added power, as well as a strong work ethic, ensuring their opposition would have to work hard to achieve parity let alone superiority in midfield. Diouf may have provided the wow factor for Senegal, but players like Henri Camara and Khalilou Fadiga brought support to boost the forward line.

The importance of having these options showed when Senegal launched quick counter-attacks after winning back possession, having multiple players making dangerous forward runs to stretch a defence now out of position. Fast forward to 31 May 2002: Senegal’s winning goal against France in the World Cup opener came from a counter, winning the ball back on the halfway line and scoring in 10 seconds via Diop.

However, a pay dispute threatened to derail their preparations, a scourge that afflicted many African countries before participating in a tournament. The players wanted an increase in their bonuses after qualifying for their first World Cup. The head of the Senegalese Football Federation, El-Hadj Malick Sy, had offered them 10 million francs – the players wanted 40 million. Moreover, if the bonuses weren’t agreed, they would not participate in the Cup of Nations.

Sy flew to France, where the squad was camped, with his FSF officials to iron out a deal. To Metsu’s relief, the FSF came to an agreement with the players, with Salif Diao nominated as their representative. With no other concerns, the squad journeyed to Mali.

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In their first tournament under Metsu, Senegal had high hopes of bettering their quarter-final finish in the 2000 Cup of Nations, where they were knocked out by Nigeria. Drawn in Group D, their opponents were Tunisia, Zambia and Egypt. Their opening game was against Egypt, played on 20 January, in the Malian capital Bamako. Egypt sought revenge, as it was their rivals who finished ahead of the Pharaohs to qualify for the World Cup.

As always in a team’s opening game of a tournament, both countries played with the intention of safety first, trying not to make any errors that could lead to conceding a goal. Senegal slowly began to step up the pace, Diouf twice forcing Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary into smart saves. However, the Al-Ahly ‘keeper would turn from hero to villain with eight minutes remaining. From Senegal’s corner, El-Hadary’s attempt to punch the ball went awry, and Senegal’s centre-back Lamine Diatta capitalised on the error to score from close range. Senegal’s defence, just like in the World Cup qualifiers, managed to hold on for a 1-0 win.

Victory in their first game, notching up a clean sheet in the process, was a much-needed morale booster. The players, as well as Metsu, knew that it provided a platform for the side to progress further in the competition. Six days later, they returned to the same stadium to play Zambia, who managed to hold Tunisia to a goalless draw in their group opener.

If the opening stages of Senegal’s match with Egypt were quiet, it the opposite against the Zambians. Throughout the first half, both sides played out an entertaining, end-to-end game, though it was Zambia who had the best chance when Harry Milanzi was clean through, skipped past goalkeeper Tony Sylva and somehow shot wide.

With nine minutes to go, Metsu decided to throw on his last substitution – Henri Camara making way for 19-year-old Souleymane Camara. With the game entering stoppage time, Milanzi’s profligacy would come back to haunt the Chipolopolo when Camara slipped beyond his marker to head the ball past Zambia’s goalkeeper.

For Senegal there was an overriding sense of pride at booking their place in the quarter-finals, especially with a game to spare. Their 0-0 draw against Tunisia five days later in the western city of Kayes sealed top spot in their group, with Egypt joining them in the knockout stages. Though Senegal were not at their best – Salif Diao commented on how they “needed to kill other teams off” instead of slender 1-0 wins – they were through, and that’s all that mattered.

Senegal’s prize for winning their group was to face DR Congo in the quarter-final. However, Congo were no minnows, as demonstrated in the group stage. Placed in Group B, the Leopards fell to a 1-0 defeat to Cameroon, before drawing 0-0 to Togo. It meant they had to beat Ivory Coast to advance – a team that had in their ranks a young Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora and Siaka Tiéné. DR Congo stunned the Ivorians and emphatically won 3-1 to join Cameroon in the last eight.

It was all the more extraordinary seeing the Leopards had been under the tutelage of Watunda Iyolo for just four months. He had been parachuted into the role after DR Congo had gone through three managers during 2001. Yet for all the instability, here they were in the quarter-finals of the Cup of Nations, hoping to repeat their third-place finish in 1998.

Their usual threat was Shabani Nonda, who blazed holes in Ligue 1 defences for Monaco, averaging nearly a goal every other game during his five-year stay. Despite his prowess, the striker was out injured. Instead, leading the line for DR Congo was a young Lomana Lua-Lua of Newcastle.  As the two sides faced each other in Bamako on 4 February, hamstrung without Nonda, the Leopards decided to attack Senegal almost immediately.

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Metsu’s players had a taste of their opponent’s intentions when centre-back Felix Muamba abandoned his defensive responsibilities and pushed far up the pitch before shooting over the bar. The match was played at a frenetic pace with both sides threatening to create chances. It would be Senegal who struck first when Diao glanced Fadiga’s lofted free-kick past the stranded Paulin Tokala. Senegal held the lead at half-time, welcoming a brief respite from the game’s intensity.

In the second half, it seemed that conceding merely served to strengthen DR Congo’s efforts, as the Leopards seized control of possession. Senegal’s defence was under pressure but Sylva came to the fore, saving shots and marshalling his back four with authority. As the second half progressed, Congo made attacking changes to exert even more pressure, desperate to find an equaliser. In response, Metsu threw Diop on, adding further resilience in midfield.

DR Congo’s ultra-offensive tactics in trying to score meant only two players were back defending while the others pushed on. Needless to say, Senegal capitalised on the counter through smart work by super-sub Souleymane Camara, who passed on a golden chance to Diouf, who made no mistake in rolling the ball into an empty net. As Senegal’s players celebrated sealing victory, Congo were livid and protested to no avail that Camara was offside. Replays would prove he was indeed offside. It didn’t matter. When the final whistle blew, Senegal’s players celebrated triumphantly, reaching the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since 1990.

Senegal were now high on confidence, surpassing their quarter-final finish in 2000. It was a far cry from the dispute that fractured the national team just a few weeks earlier. Their strength was clearly in defence, which had yet to concede. Under the calming and guiding presence of Metsu, a sense of resilience and strength was developing – traits used to greater success a few months later in the Far East.

Facing Nigeria in the semis, the team who knocked them out two years earlier, presented a chance for revenge. In turn, the Nigerians had a solid if unspectacular passage to the last four, despite coming under strong criticism from fans and pundits. Julius Aghahowa was the difference in their 1-0 win against Algeria before being held to a goalless draw against the hosts Mali in Bamako.

Their passage to the quarter-finals as group winners was confirmed by narrowly dispatching George Weah’s Liberia, with Aghahowa once again the difference. The Super Eagles booked their place in the semis by defeating Ghana 1-0. Just like Senegal, the Nigerians, under the stewardship of Shuaibu Amodu, had not conceded a goal so far in the competition. With their star appeal, it’s no surprise that they were favourites.

Their fanatical fans felt nothing less than lifting the trophy would be acceptable. You could understand why they felt this way when looking at their squad. There was a considerable amount of talented youth in the form of 21-year-old centre-back Joseph Yobo and 19-year-old strikers Yakubu and Aghahowa. In addition, the veteran experience of midfielder Finidi George complimented Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Jay-Jay Okocha, Celestine Babayaro and Nwankwo Kanu. What followed at the Stade Modibo Keita in Bamako on 7 February was the best game of the tournament.

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The semi started with a bang when, just a minute into the game, Fadiga played in Henri Camara. The striker’s clever lob beat Nigerian goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu, but not the woodwork. Rattled by how quickly their opponents had nearly scored, the Nigerians sought to compose themselves, which they did through the ever creative Okocha. His sublime free-kick left Sylva stranded and crashed back off the post. As the first half progressed, Senegal were the more enterprising in their attacking intent, until a moment of madness in the 35th minute.

Senegal’s Pape Sarr received the ball, only to be pressured from behind by Nigeria’s Garba Lawal, who harried and jostled with the midfielder. Sarr tried to protect the ball but his elbow caught Lawal, who duly fell to the ground clutching his face. Pandemonium ensued after referee Coffi Codjia sent off the midfielder, much to the fury of the 24-year-old. Such was his anger, it took a few minutes for Sarr to leave the field. The 10 men of Senegal reached half-time without conceding.

In the second half, with the benefit of having an extra man, Nigeria sought to take control of the game. The Super Eagles fashioned half chances, spurred on by their fans, expecting to turn their positive spell into goals. But Metsu had a star in Diouf. The 21-year-old harassed Nigeria’s centre-backs whenever they were in possession, while his hold up play was first class, drawing fouls and winning corners. These little things crucially released the pressure from Senegal’s embattled defenders and stopped them playing deep.

Metsu was no doubt aware that whenever a team has a player sent off, they are forced to defend for large parts of the game, with their best chance from set-pieces. His towering centre-backs and midfielders would need to be used to good effect. It was the type of industrious work Metsu tasked Diouf with that helped win Senegal a corner 11minutes into the second half. As Fadiga swung the ball into the danger zone, Shorunmu raced out to try and punch clear. He missed, and the imposing figure of Diop headed the ball in.

In response, the Nigerians ratcheted up the pressure. With the game entering the final 10 minutes of normal time, Nigeria were soon turning possession into clear-cut chances. Sylva twice denied Aghahowa in the space of a few minutes, the second time with the use of his legs after the Nigerian was through on goal. Suddenly, with less than two minutes remaining, a hopeful flick on from a long ball aimlessly went towards Senegal centre-back Lamine Diatta. With Aghahowa lurking behind him, he decided to shepherd the ball towards his goalkeeper. As Sylva came out of his six-yard box, there was a slight moment of hesitation between them, unsure as to who would clear the ball.

Indecisiveness was all that Aghahowa needed as he slipped past Diatta before poking the ball beyond Sylva and into the net. While Senegal’s players remonstrated with each other, dumbfounded at what had happened, Aghahowa ran to the corner flag, performing his trademark acrobatics. Senegal had conceded their first goal in the  Cup of Nations thanks to a defensive error.

As normal time ended, it looked like Senegal’s physical exertions during the 90 minutes would now have a detrimental effect. Metsu took off Henri Camara for Souleymane Camara in a bid to bolster his ailing side. Predictably, Nigeria started the first half of extra time strongly, becoming more confident after equalising. They seemed oblivious to the fact that by pushing forward in search of a winner it made them susceptible to one of Senegal’s biggest strengths: the counter-attack.

In the 97th minute,  Diao won back possession from the Nigerians in midfield, quickly playing the ball to Diouf. In turn, he saw Diao make a striding run into the box. His pass found the midfielder, who scuffed a shot into the bottom right. Joy swept through the stadium, not least on Senegal’s bench. Nigeria responded by throwing the kitchen sink at Senegal, not wanting to suffer the ignominy of losing a semi-final while having an extra man for most of the game. Alas, three minutes into the second half of extra time, Nigeria’s pressure paid off.

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Kanu, who had worked hard throughout the game, drove into the penalty area.  Diatta would continue his misfortune by mistiming his challenge and bringing the striker down. The referee blew for a penalty, which then sparked a fracas between the two sides. When tempers cooled down, all eyes looked towards the penalty taker. Okocha, who would have been likely to take it, was substituted on 74 minutes and replaced by Wilson Oruma. Without their main set piece taker, it fell to Oruma himself to take on responsibility. Over 20,000 spectators waited anxiously as Oruma took the kick.

Sylva dived the wrong way, but the ball struck the post, rolling away from goal. As Aghahowa and Omar Daf chased the loose ball, the forward lunged dangerously on Daf. With the Nigerian booked in the first half, he received a second yellow card and Nigeria went down to 10 men. Any semblance of calm disintegrated, as both sides tackled each other with such ferocity in the closing stages that some would call it assault.

As the final whistle blew, relief enveloped Senegal’s players and coaching staff. They had exacted revenge for what happened in 2000 and reached the Africa Cup of Nations final for the very first time. To show character, determination and strength when going a man down against one of Africa’s best teams highlighted how far they had come under Metsu.

Senegal’s opponents in their maiden final were the holders Cameroon. Coached by Winfried Schäfer since 2001, the Indomitable Lions had a superb squad. Rigobert Song, Lauren, Pierre Womé, Geremi, Samuel Eto’o, Mark Vivien Foé, Salomon Olembé and Eric Djemba-Djemba were in their early to mid-20s, playing in Europe’s top five leagues. The squad was bolstered with veterans like Patrick M’Boma, who, at 31, was the elder statesman compared to the youthfulness of the rest. They even had a 17-year-old Carlos Kameni in the 22 man squad.

The Indomitable Lions had been convincing on their route to the final. In the group stages, their first two matches were 1-0 wins against DR Congo and Ivory Coast, Patrick M’Boma with the winning goals. Cameroon appeased their expectant fans in the final group game, turning on the style in a commanding 3-0 win against Togo. In the quarter-finals against Egypt, the spectre of knockout football made the game a close affair, yet Cameroon were indebted once again to M’Boma who scored the only goal of the game. They then dispatched home heroes Mali to reach the final.

Although Cameroon were without the injured M’Boma, Metsu and his players knew they posed a monumental challenge. While Senegal conceded once during the competition, Cameroon had yet to see their net bulge.  Just like in the semi-final, Senegal were quick out the blocks, nearly scoring within four minutes. Diouf’s cushioned layoff set up Henri Camara but the striker continued his wastefulness in front of goal by blazing the ball over the bar. The loss of M’Boma hurt Cameroon and the holders found it difficult to break down Senegal’s disciplined defence.

Pace will trouble even the best of defenders and  Eto’o had it in spades. The young Real Mallorca striker thundered down the right wing and crossed the ball for his strike partner Pius Ndiefi. The 28-year-old had been given the task of replacing M’Boma and, from eight yards out, the Sedan forward had a chance to repay Schäfer’s faith in him. Instead, he fluffed his lines, not even managing to hit the target. Both finalists wanted to score that all-important opening goal yet both defences were on top. Needless to say, 0-0 at half-time was entirely predictable.

As the second half progressed, Senegal’s players began to tire, with the defence straining to deal with the twin threat of Ndiefi and Eto’o. The semi-final had taken a lot out of them. Tired players mean potential lapses in concentration and, on 70 minutes, it nearly cost Senegal. Eto’o’s lethargic header should have been dealt with by  Diatta but, not for the first time in the tournament, took his eye off the ball, misjudging the looping trajectory. Ndiefi couldn’t believe his luck as he ran towards goal, one on one with Sylva. Here was the chance to atone for his earlier miss and play the hero. Although his shot was on target, beating the stranded Sylva, Senegal were once again indebted to the post.

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As 30 cagey extra-time minutes ended, penalties would decide the winner. Taking part in a penalty shootout is nerve-wracking for any player but one in a final magnifies the pressure. The Indomitable Lions had experience of shootouts, defeating Nigeria in Lagos to win the 2000 Cup of Nations as well as at the Olympics that year against Spain. For Senegal, it was unchartered territory; they hadn’t participated in a penalty shootout before in a competition.

When Cameroon’s Womé prepared to take the first penalty, Tony Sylva looked assured, gleaming with confidence after having an excellent tournament. Almost inevitably, he palmed away the Cameroonian’s effort. Senegal’s right-back Ferdinand Coly prepared to capitalise on the good start. Even though Cameroon’s Alioum Boukar guessed correctly by going to his left, he could only parry the ball into the net to the audible gasps of the spectators. While Boukar slammed his fist into the ground repeatedly in disgust, Coly prayed in thanks at his good fortune.

The pressure now shifted to the holders. Substitute Patrick Suffo was up next. Sylva went to his right, just like he did to deny Womé, but Suffo’s effort found the bottom corner. Fadiga took a long run-up for his penalty but easily guided the ball into the top corner. Lauren converted Cameroon’s third penalty, the Arsenal defender sending Sylva the wrong way.

Substitute Amdy Faye walked to the penalty spot knowing the importance of his kick. Score and Senegal would be 3-2 up after three penalties. When Egyptian referee Gamal Al-Ghandour blew his whistle, Faye struck the ball low, hard and straight down the middle. Boukar was able to instinctively use his knee to block the shot. Schäfer’s fist-pump heralded Cameroon being back in the game with the score at 2-2. Next up was Geremi, a set-piece expert. The Cameroonian took a long run-up, nonchalantly guiding his penalty into the bottom corner.

El Hadji Diouf, Senegal’s player of the tournament, walked up to take his kick. Hands on his hips, he ran up and shot wide. Boukar jumped up wildly in triumph while Senegal’s players in the centre circle reacted with dismay. Centre-back Alassane N’Dour clasped his hands behind his neck in utter disbelief. The shootout had been turned on its head. Cameroon led 3-2.

How things change. Their captain, Rigobert Song, now had the chance to win the Africa Cup of Nations. Anticipating what was at stake, the crowd in Bamako created an incessant din as Song walked towards the box. While doing so, Boukar gave him words of encouragement, before Song placed the ball on the spot. Upon the sound of the whistle, the skipper side-footed it towards the right-hand corner. Sylva leapt to the right and, with two hands, pushed it away. While Song looked on despondently, Metsu had an air of calmness – almost nonplussed by it all.

The focus was now on Senegal’s captain, Aliou Cissé. A captain bears many burdens but the stakes were high for Cissé. Score and the shootout would go to sudden death but miss and Cameroon would be champions of Africa once again. Just like Geremi, Cissé took his time before striking the penalty, only for Boukar to save it with his legs. The crowd exploded in celebration as Boukar was mobbed by his teammates, the manager Schäfer embracing his coaching staff.

History had been made by the Indomitable Lions as they won back-to-back Cup of Nations tournaments, not done since Ghana in 1965. For underdogs Senegal, their players were crestfallen, with many in tears at coming so close to winning the tournament.

Beyond the despair of the final, there were positives for Senegal, with two of their players making the Team of the Tournament in Sylva and Diouf. In addition, the players and officials were given a rapturous welcome when they returning to the capital Dakar. Deservedly treated as heroes, the red carpet was rolled out. Crucially for Metsu, the squad had improved gradually as the tournament progressed Salif Diao’s words summed up what they felt: “Senegal have shown that we can play well on the big occasion against the best teams.”

Importantly, the experiences gained and lessons learned during Senegal’s time in Mali would be used to stunning results less than four months later at the World Cup. As one adventure ended, another one would begin in the Far East, which would cement the reputation of Senegalese football and Bruno Metsu – not as a white sorcerer as some people liked to call him, but as a man who simply believed in his players and the quality of football in Senegal. 

By Yousef Teclab  

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