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Greatest Underdog Stories – When Senegal shocked the world champions

 

Heading into the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, France were the reigning world champions. Four years previously they had won their first ever World Cup and went into the subsequent edition hoping to retain the prestigious trophy.

Les Bleus were placed in Group A alongside South American giants Uruguay, European outfit Denmark and first-time World Cup qualifiers from Africa, Senegal. The group looked a fairly straightforward one for France – one from which they certainly wouldn’t have too many problems making the knockout stages of the competition. And that despite the fact that their talismanic figure from France 1998, Zinedine Zidane was nursing an injury and was unlikely to play in the group stage games.

The first match of the 2002 World Cup pitted the then-reigning world champions against the debutantes Senegal at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in South Korea. No one gave much of a chance to Bruno Metsu’s men as France were considered too strong for the African outfit.

Even though France had to make do without the influential figure of Zidane, they still had a very strong squad with the likes of Fabien Barthez in goal, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu in defence. The midfield was well stacked, too, with Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff feeding the forward line up of David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry.

On the other hand, hardly anyone knew about any of the Senegalese players. Most of them were unknown quantities at the international level, and perhaps that element of surprise was to work to their advantage.

France had the chance to take the lead around the 22nd minute mark, when Henry fed a pass to then Juventus striker Trezeguet, the forward did extremely well to get a shot past a defender, but could only hit the post as the ball bounced off and back into play. A reprieve for Senegal, and a rueful smile from Trezeguet.

As the match progressed Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf grew into the game and was a constant menace for the French defence. In the 30th minute he went on a sizzling run on the left leaving Frank Leboeuf for dead before crossing the ball into the centre for the onrushing Papa Bouba Diop.

A dreadful mix-up between Barthez and Petit resulted in the ball landing sweetly for Diop – who couldn’t get the initial shot on goal – in the middle, and he was left with an easy tap in.

Video courtesy: Olly Price.

The midfielder wheeled off in celebration at the corner flag and his team-mates danced around his shirt laid on the ground to celebrate what was the first goal of the 2002 World Cup, and the recipe for a start to the competition that no one had expected.

France had several chances to draw the scores level, including a shot off the bar from Arsenal forward Henry, but Senegal held on to a 1-0 win to spark off a memorable run at the World Cup. They eventually made it to the quarter-final, while France exited at the group stage itself, failing to win any of their three games.

Rarely have a bunch of World Cup debutantes made the whole world sit up and take notice the way Senegal did. That Metsu’s team will always have a pride of a place in any conversation relating to the greatest football upsets.