Pele is no stranger to bold predictions. Although he once claimed that an African team would win the World Cup by the turn of the millennium, none has made it further than the quarter finals. After Cameroon’s exploits in 1990, Senegal were the next to reach that stage. It was the first time they’d ever qualified for the tournament and they made quite an impression.
In 2002, Senegal arrived at the World Cup with limited expectations and a tough group to tackle. In the tournament’s opening match they faced France, whose colonial past loomed large ahead of a poignant encounter. There were other intriguing factors at play. Senegal were managed by a Frenchman, Bruno Metsu, while Dakar-born Patrick Vieira lined up for their opponents.
All but two of the Senegal squad played their football in France, and many felt that they had something to prove against the reigning champions, who were widely tipped to retain their crown. As massive underdogs, inexperienced on the biggest stage, nobody gave Metsu’s side much hope of causing an upset. Many felt they would be content to simply avoid embarrassment but something remarkable happened instead.
Senegal soaked up plenty of pressure early on, with David Trezeguet hitting the post, and then struck the decisive goal on the half-hour mark. Omar Daf nicked the ball away from a dithering Youri Djorkaeff and set El Hadji Diouf free down the left. Bursting past Franck Leboeuf he crossed for Papa Bouba Diop to scramble the ball home after a misjudgement in defence.
The finish might have been scrappy but nobody cared. Bouba Diop ran towards the corner flag, lifted off his shirt and led a dance around it as his teammates joined in. The celebrations at the final whistle were even better as Senegal held on to humble an expectant France. They would exit the tournament at the group stage without so much as a goal to show for their efforts while Senegal marched on.
Two draws, against Denmark and Uruguay, sealed their progress. In the first, Salif Diao scored one of the goals of the tournament, stabbing in at the end of a devastating counter attack to cancel out Jon Dahl Tomasson’s early penalty. They then shared six goals with Uruguay in a chaotic game, clinging on at the end having been 3-0 up and cruising at half time.
Five points was enough to finish in second place behind Denmark, earning Senegal a spot in the knockout stages, where they met Sweden. Henri Camara, who had been left on the bench for the opening match, made his presence felt with a splendid brace that saw them come from behind to win. The second was an extra time golden goal that gave Sweden no chance to recover and equalled Cameroon’s record for an African side at the World Cup.
Established as one of the major talking points from their win over France onwards, Senegal’s run to the latter stages epitomised an open tournament where many established favourites succumbed to smaller nations. Argentina, Portugal and Italy were also knocked out much earlier than expected. Others profited from their failings.
In the quarter finals, Senegal came up against another surprise package. Competing at their first World Cup since 1954, Turkey had already made it further than anyone anticipated. Senegal had the best of the game’s few chances, including a goal disallowed for offside but were made to feel the same pain they’d inflicted a round earlier as Ilhan Mansiz grabbed the winner in extra time.
Regardless of how Senegal’s run ended, there was much to be proud of, and it had some longstanding implications. The profile of Senegalese footballers around the world, but particularly in England, skyrocketed. Eleven members of that squad would move to the Premier League at some point in their careers. Three of the most notable, Diao, Diouf and captain Aliou Cisse, were signed that summer.
Sixteen years on, as Senegal prepare to take part in only their second World Cup, they can take heart from what was achieved back in 2002. Cisse will once more be leading his country, but this time as the team’s manager. His players won’t have to look far for inspiration as Senegal set about upsetting the odds again.