France went into the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan as double champions, having won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. They had a star-studded squad that boasted names such as Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane. It’s safe to say that big things were expected of Les Bleus.
Their first opponents in Group A were Senegal, who were participating in their maiden World Cup finals. That their first World Cup game would come against the French opened up interesting narratives: almost every player in the Senegal squad played their domestic football in France, a country that had previously colonised the nation.
There may have been links between the two nations, but there weren’t many who believed Senegal could win the game. Patrick Vieira was among those, as the France midfielder came out before the game and openly claimed that they had little chance of securing victory.
Despite the doubts, Senegal showed they could be dangerous early on. Their counter-attacks were swift and they had a clear outlet, with El-Hadji Diouf hanging on the edge of the French defence. He made intelligent runs, showcasing his acceleration, to get into threatening positions, and he was also showing the quality on the ball needed to make the most of these openings. It was Diouf who carved out the chance for the game’s first and only goal on the half-hour mark.
He skipped past Frank Leboeuf on the left, got to the byline and sent a low ball to Papa Bouba Diop. The midfielder slid in to reach the ball, though his first attempt hit Fabien Barthez. The ball rebounded back towards the towering presence who reacted before Emmanuel Petit to guide it into the net while still on the floor.
The party had already started in the stands as the African supporters went wild. The players were also having one of their own by the corner flag, as Diop took his shirt off, put it on the floor and called his teammates over to dance around it. They obliged and the picture has become famous in World Cup folklore. They danced to the rhythm that young Senegalese kids would be copying for years to come.
The players weren’t able to relax for too long, though, as they had to keep this French side out for an hour. David Trezeguet had already hit the post before Diop’s goal and Henry would go on to hit the bar after it. Despite that, Senegal were standing strong and successfully limiting France’s chances. They even went on to hit the woodwork themselves when Khalilou Fadiga used his trickery to navigate his way into the box and unleashed a strike which went out off the bar.
As the final whistle blew some of the Senegalese team fell to their knees, while others ran around aimlessly as if unsure what to do with themselves. If this game wasn’t already the most historic football match Senegal had ever played, then it certainly was now – and arguably still is. France’s stars looked on perplexed as they celebrated; despite all of their might, they hadn’t managed to hit the back of the net.
This felt like a freak result, and in many ways it was, though it was also an indicator of what was in store for the two sides in the remainder of the tournament. The theme of France failing to hit the back of the net continued, as they drew 0-0 against Uruguay and lost 2-0 against Denmark in what was a miserable campaign. This also set a record as they became the first defending champions to fail to register a goal at the next edition of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, manager Roger Lemerre was quickly sacked.
Senegal went on to draw 1-1 with Denmark and 3-3 with Uruguay, meaning they went through the group stages in second place. They even beat Sweden in the round of 16 thanks to Henri Camara’s brace, which included a golden goal. They eventually lost to Turkey in the quarter-finals, but their showing in Japan and South Korea was already more than enough to bring pride to their nation.
What is also important to note about this run is that they didn’t achieve it by sitting back and defending. Self-expression was incredibly important for this side and they honoured that in each of their matches. Salif Diao’s equaliser against Denmark highlighted the sweeping football the Senegalese were capable of, as they quickly and precisely played the ball from near their own corner flag to the back of the opposition net in a matter of seconds and just four passes.
The result against France, however, and their ensuing success in the tournament not only helped the reputation of the team as a whole, but the individuals who made it up. Diao and Diouf had both been signed by Liverpool shortly before the World Cup and their performances in Asia stirred up excitement for the pair’s arrival at Anfield.
Captain Aliou Cissé’s stock also rose. His leadership during the tournament was undoubtedly important to the success. Following the World Cup’s culmination, he was signed by Birmingham for their maiden Premier League campaign. The experience gained from that campaign became even more useful in the summer of 2018, though, as he guided his nation to their second World Cup finals as manager.
Sadly there was no progression from the group stages this time, losing out to Japan on the number of yellow cards they’d accumulated, matching their hosts from 2002 on points, goal difference, goals scored and conceded.
The past two World Cups have both seen the reigning champions fail to make it out of their respective groups, but at the time of this game, it was incredibly rare. This was a match that not only set the tone for how each team would perform in the tournament, but also had ramifications for both sides outside of it. Even though Senegal went on to more remarkable results, Diop and his teammates dancing around his shirt by the corner flag remains the everlasting image from Senegal’s maiden World Cup.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95