Senegal's surprising 2002 World Cup
West African football had made an impact on the international scene thanks to Cameroon and Nigeria, but in the new millennium, it was time for a new face.
Senegal had been simmering in the early 1990s when they reached the quarterfinals of the African Nations Cup in two consecutive tournaments but slipped off the radar before storming back almost a decade later.
They were quarterfinalists at the 2000 ANC and then the runner-up in 2002, when they lost to Nigeria. Senegal had also surprised the North African giants during qualifying for the World Cup, topping a group that included Egypt and Morocco. Africa's allotment at the tournament had been expanded to five, and Senegal were one of two debutants (South Africa was the other) at the Japan and South Korea edition of the event.
Senegal were also placed in one of the more difficult groups of the competition, which included two previous World Cup winners in Uruguay and France. But they had the privilege of playing in an opening match rich in subplots. The former French colony was pitted against France, which Senegal would take on with French-born coach Bruno Metsu at the helm.
It was expected to be one-way traffic, but France found themselves faced with a speed bump early on. They could have scored in the 24th minute when Thierry Henry found David Trezeguet, who beat Senegalese goalkeeper Tony Sylva, but Trezeguet hit the right post. That served as the catalyst for a momentum shift. Six minutes later, Senegal got away on the counterattack. El-Hadji Diouf found Papa Bouba Diop, whose first shot was saved by Fabian Barthez, only to see the French stopper allow his opponent a second chance. Diop did not miss on the next attempt and beat Barthez to rewrite the traditional power balance between the two countries.
There was still an hour to play in the tournament opener, and Senegal came under attack for most of it. Youri Djorkaeff took a free kick. Sylva saved it. Sylvain Wiltord had an attempt at goal. Sylva was in the way again. At the break, France knew they would be forced to assert themselves more formidably in the second period.
In so doing, they neglected their defence and allowed Khalilou Fadiga to thread through with a chance to double Senegal's advantage, but he hit the crossbar. The frustration remained with the French, though. Djorkaeff also made contact with the woodwork. France pushed until the final second when Lilian Thuram played a pass, but the final whistle sounded before a shot at goal could be taken.
Like Cameroon taking down Argentina 12 years before, Senegal had dethroned the kings, in a manner of speaking. Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade declared a national holiday after the victory, but there would be much more to celebrate.
But first things got heated, in every sense.
A week later, with temperatures soaring to 90 degrees, Senegal lost their cool early on against Denmark. There was a flare-up between the teams, and then Salif Diao conceded a penalty, which Jon Dahl Tomasson converted. The Senegalese midfielder made up for his error in the 52nd minute when he finished off a five-man move that covered the length of the pitch to put Senegal on level terms. Diao was later red-carded for a studs-up challenge on Rene Henriksen.
By the time Senegal's final group stage match against Uruguay kicked off, the steam had not settled, and it seemed that their opponent was equally hot under the collar. When Diouf was awarded a penalty after he tumbled with goalkeeper Fabian Carini, there was outrage because there did not appear to be any contact between the two. Fadiga netted to put Senegal ahead.
Senegal doubled their lead through Diop without any controversy before the half hour was up, but the tension returned when Diop scored again. He appeared to be offside, but the goal was awarded. Uruguay's defenders were disgusted, but it would take more than strong emotion to get them back into the game. Luckily for them, substitute Richard Morales tapped in 20 seconds into the second half, and Senegal were set to be stunned further.
Under waves of attack, Senegal found their lead cut to just a goal when Diego Forlan scored with 21 minutes left to play. Poor discipline ultimately cost Senegal another prized scalp. They gave away a penalty in the 88th minute and almost lost the match when Morales headed wide in injury time. In total, 12 players were booked in the match, but none of that would matter to a Senegalese side that was through to the round of 16.
In the second round versus Sweden, Senegal were chasing the game instead of leading it when Henrik Larsson scored his third goal of the tournament after 11 minutes. Senegal rallied to draw level in the first half. Sylva did his bit to keep Senegal in the game, pulling off saves and watching Sweden squander chances. In extra time, Henri Camara scored a golden goal in the 103rd minute to give Africa their second-ever World Cup quarterfinalist.
In the same way Senegal got to the quarterfinals, they exited the tournament. Turkey netted the extra-time goal after a scoreless match to end a dream run, but Metsu predicted it would start another. "I am very proud of my players, and we have come and shown that we are capable of upsetting the hierarchy of world football," he said at the time.
He was not entirely wrong. By 2004, Senegal had achieved their highest ranking of 26th in the world, but they could not sustain their form. They finished behind Togo in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. They have since all but disappeared from the global stage and even the continental one. Senegal have qualified for only two of the last four ANCs, missing out in 2010 and 2013. They exited the competition in the first round of the two tournaments they appeared in, 2008 and 2012, and have struggled to summon the spirit of Seoul since.
But Metsu's soul found peace with Senegal. Through his involvement with him, he converted to Islam and continued to have close ties with the country. He died last year and was given a traditional funeral in Dakar and buried in the Muslim cemetery.