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Senegal's 2002 World Cup: From formation to culmination [Excerpt]

It has been 20 years since Senegal stunned the world in the Far East, advancing to the quarter-final stage in their maiden appearance at the World Cup.

Senegal at the 2002 World Cup

Under Bruno Metsu, the Teranga Lions captured the imagination with their speed, physicality, solidarity and tactical intelligence, shocking reigning world champions France along the way and overturning a deficit to beat Sweden in extra-time in the Round of 16.

That success launched Senegalese football into the mainstream and saw many of that squad, previously unheralded, secure vertical moves in the transfer market.

This is the story of that team and its success, from formation to culmination.

Senegal’s recent history and current status as African champions may belie it, but for a long time, they were one of the continent’s perennial underachievers.

At the dawn of the millennium, the Teranga Lions had appeared in less than a third of the 22 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) editions (one of those, in 1992, they hosted), and had never made the podium. Their best results were a pair of fourth-place finishes, on debut in 1965 and in 1990. When they suffered elimination at the hands of co-host Nigeria in the quarter-finals in 2000, they received a huge reception at the Leopold Senghor airport, with thousands flocking there to receive them.

This was just over two years before they would announce themselves to the world, and so it seems as good a point as any to begin charting their journey.

It would be tempting to hypothesise that their performance at Ghana/Nigeria 2000 was the catalyst for what came after. They did, after all, come mightily close to upsetting the Super Eagles in Lagos: they led until the 85th minute, and spurned a number of presentable chances to extend that advantage before the entries of Sunday Oliseh and Julius Aghahowa righted the course of history.

However, that would be overly simplistic.

For one thing, of the squad of 23 that would rock up in Korea in 2002, only seven were in the squad for the 2000 AFCON. Second: until October, eight months following that Nations Cup tournament, Senegal were managed, not by Metsu, but by German Peter Schnittger.

Under Schnittger, Senegal bore little stylistic resemblance to the 2002 World Cup team. His preference was for a much more defensive emphasis, and consequently, under him the Teranga Lions were stultifying in their pragmatism. Unsurprisingly, when his contract was up, there was no appetite on the Senegal Football Federation’s (FSF) part for a renewal – in Schnittger’s final four matches in charge, against Algeria, Egypt, Togo and Guinea, Senegal had scored just once and recorded no wins.

In his stead came Frenchman Metsu, whose prior experience in Africa had been a three-month stint in charge of Guinea between April and June 2000. Under his short-lived guidance, Guinea had come through an entertaining tie against Uganda in the First Round of 2002 World Cup qualifying, drawing 4-4 away and winning 3-0 at home to progress to the Second Round. However, he had resigned the position in June, disillusioned by the disorganisation and meddling, as well as by the fact that, at the same time, the Guinean Sports Ministry was at odds with the FA.

Upon taking the role, Metsu immediately insisted on a more expansive attacking style: in his first four matches in the post – against Uganda, Morocco, Namibia and Uganda – Senegal scored eight times.

Beyond the particulars of his tactical approach, his coaching ideology was based on getting through to players on a human level and finding what made them tick. “We worked as hard as any team in the world in training,” Metsu said. “But you don't have to be a great manager to send out a team in a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 or whatever because anyone can do that.

“By contrast, channelling everyone's energy and strength in the same direction, that is something else. Motivating players, giving them confidence, making them mentally strong … Football is not just about tactics and some people tend to forget that.

“I am a big believer in human values, if you don't love your players you don't get results. It's all about the little something extra that a manager can bring, the boost that you give the players and they give you.”

Perhaps the biggest triumph of Metsu’s humanist ethos was El-Hadji Diouf.

Diouf debuted for Senegal under Schnittger on April 23, 2000, against Benin in the second leg of their First Round World Cup qualifier. In keeping with the general theme under the German coach, Senegal scraped past the Squirrels 2-1 on aggregate. However, such was the expectation around the Lens forward that, while he warmed up for his international bow, he was greeted with an ovation inside a packed Leopold Senghor Stadium.

He would go on to earn the nickname ‘The Serial Killer’, but despite his obvious talent, he had a relatively slow start to life with the Teranga Lions. Following the appointment of Metsu, something seemed to click in the mind of Diouf though, and he absolutely caught fire from March, 2001, scoring at a rate of 1.4 goals a game until the end of World Cup qualifying.

It no doubt helped that he had a manager at international level who had quickly decided that a high-handed approach to squad discipline would quickly put him at odds with the majority of his squad, most of whom he personally played a part in convincing to give the Senegal national team a shot despite their eligibility for France.

“I like the (African) outlook on life,” Metsu explained. “Nothing seems to trouble them, they very rarely lose their tempers and they are not overly serious about work. I decided quickly not to impose any fancy programme or strict regulations. I looked at improvising instead.” He was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to indiscretions, as long as output on the pitch was unaffected.

His improvisational approach, as well as the infusion of Ligue 1 talent, saw Senegal seal a place at the 2002 AFCON, despite finishing five points behind group winners Togo. The greater challenge, however, was qualifying for the big one: the 2002 World Cup.

The World Cup qualifying series was already two games in by the time Metsu was appointed. With no fewer than three former World Cup participants – Algeria, Morocco and Egypt – drawn alongside Senegal in Group C, the task promised to be a trying one.

What happened instead was that, in the early running, teams largely cancelled one another out. Algeria drew with Senegal, who drew with Egypt, who drew with Morocco, who had drawn with Namibia. A whopping 35 per cent of matches in the group ended in draws, and so by the time Metsu properly got his feet under the table, there was not a lot of ground to make up.

After withstanding a late barrage (and a howler by referee Felix Tangawarima, who failed to see an effort by the visitors had crossed the line) to earn their third draw in a row in Rabat in February, Senegal went about their task con brio, winning four of their remaining five matches.

In a 4-0 demolition of Namibia, Diouf completed a hat-trick just seven minutes after the second-half restart. He then proceeded to put a hapless Algeria to the sword, hitting another treble five weeks later, before defeat to Egypt in Cairo momentarily threw a spanner in the works, seeing them slip down to second in the group with two matches to play.

Senegal righted themselves, however, beating Morocco 1-0 at home to remain within three points of the group leaders. Their trouncing of Namibia on the road had a far more egalitarian feel to the scorers’ sheet: five different goal scorers, one of them – unsurprisingly – Diouf. These victories, and even more so the margin of them, would prove crucial, as Senegal secured top spot – and a place at the World Cup for the first time ever – on goal difference and off the back of stellar home form.

Senegal were received as heroes upon their return from Windhoek, with thousands attending them as they began a slow, near five-hour procession from the airport to downtown Dakar. “It is an unforgettable moment,” Diouf said. “Something has changed in my life. Football is a great succour to our country, so now it is a matter of honour: we must stand up for our country.

“I am certain we can win the African Cup next year and even the World Cup. We are about to experience the season of a lifetime.”

Following their historic achievement, Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade returned hurriedly from a G8 meeting in Europe to receive the team. He promptly awarded every member of the Senegal squad with a knighthood – the national order of the Lion. “We have entered the era of a Senegal that wins,” he proclaimed proudly.

Even he could not have envisaged just how accurate that statement would turn out to be.

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