Twenty years ago, on 31 May, France went into their opening meet of the 2002 Football World Cup against competition debutants Senegal as ruling world and European winners. On the day, the African underdogs, calm by the idea of crossing swords with Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Thierry Henry (Zinedine Zidane was put aside with injury), pulled off an amazing 1-0 victory in Seoul.
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Directed by French coach Bruno Metsu, who unhappily died in 2013, they put in a notable performance that made the complete football world sit up and notice. As it emerged, Papa Bouba Diop, who himself passed away in 2020, slipped in to score the only goal of the game for the Senegal Football World Cup team in the 30th minute, after El-Hadji Diouf had burst away down the left side and sent in a perfect low cross.
The reporter met up with Diouf, an energetic and speedy winger who pulled on the sports shirts of Sochaux, Lens, Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and Rangers, among others, to relive that remarkable day and his country’s unbelievable run to the FIFA World Cup last eight. Now 41, and having hung up his boots with 70 caps and 24 international goals to his name, the Dakar inborn is now an ambassador for Senegal’s many national sides and a consultant to current senior men’s team coach Aliou Cisse, who managed the 2002 side to the legendary achievement over France.
We look back, through Diouf’s eyes, on an extraordinary result that saw Senegal write a thrilling new chapter in the history of African football. A reporter asked, what’s the first thing you recall about the 2002 World Cup? El-Hadji Diouf answered the first thing I remember about it is the draw. I was with the Lens group in Monaco, and our trainer Joel Muller had decided it so that we could all watch the draw live. And who did we get? France, of course.
At the time, I played together with guys like Bruno Rodriguez, Cyril Rool, Daniel Moreira and Guillaume Warmuz, who were all part of a Lens team that had been inspiring for pride. As soon as we saw that the France football team would play the Senegal Football World Cup team, they all got up and began to make fun of me. That was it, they’d by now made up their mind Senegal stood no chance. But I knew what a strong side we had.
We didn’t have any real celebrities at that time, but we were a hard unit, full of good friends who were anxious to create a bit of history and give the whole population, who had hanged on so long to see us at a FIFA World Cup, something to dream about. Being drawn counter to France was just the icing on the cake. We knew that everyone likely France to blow us away. We also knew, however, that 31 May 2002 might end up being our day. For more to know about Football World Cup Tickets Click here.
Talking of which, what kind of state in mind were you and your co-players in that day? The night before, we’d observed that the French team hadn’t come and prepared on the ground where the game was going to take place. It appeared like they’d obvious that they didn’t need to do that if all they had to do was beat the Senegal Football World Cup team. According to the French newspapers, they were going to win 8-0.
We’d heard so many things along those lines that we said to ourselves, “Hey, lady, we’re lions, after all, we’re not cockerels! How could a cockerel eat a lion? That’s impossible (laughs)!”. I recollected how my club co-players had wound me up, I thought about a lot of things like that. We were a pleased bunch, and we were keen to make our families happy and to be happy ourselves. We wanted our loved ones to be pleased with us.
A reporter questioned, was it more than a game then? He replied, yes. We wanted to keep making surfs like Cameroon had done with Roger Milla and Co when they made it to the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. And then Jay-Jay Okocha and Nigeria seized our hearts when they touched the last 16 in 1994 and 1998. We would say to each other, If Jay-Jay Okocha and Roger Milla did it, why can’t we guys, we can do this.
We billed it to ourselves to create a moment of African and Football World Cup history because you can say what you like, but Senegal’s win over France is the extreme victory the competition has ever seen. France was the world and European winners, let’s remember, with the best players in the world at the time, and some of the top goalscorer from the most important leagues. And they were facing us, little old Senegal, with young players who’d come over youth systems back home and in France.
What would be the one thing that glues in your mind from that day? I remember us chatting before the game. Bruno Metsu came into the changing room and pulled his hair back, as he had a routine of doing. Then he said, what can I perhaps say to you today? We’ve been together for a long time now. I know you all so well. You’re a wild group. I know that tonight after the game is finished, people will be talking about you right across the world. Up you get and show me what you’re talented of. It was marvellous. We didn’t need to say anything. He observed us and knew we could go out there and win.
What was the atmosphere like during the game after Diop scored? At half-time, we went into the changing room with a 1-0 lead and big smiles on our faces. We were giving each other high fives. Bruno came in, and he was irritated. He continued to tear strips off us! He said, lads, it’s not done yet. There are still 45 to 50 minutes to play. Nothing’s in the basket yet. You can give each other high fives after the World Cup. It was precisely what we needed.
Bruno was a trainer who’d come out of nowhere and became the most Senegalese creature on Earth! What I loved about him but also about Jules-Francois Bocande, who was part of the private staff was that when he spoke, we pay attention. They were like our parents or our big brothers. We wanted to play for the sports shirt, to win, to work organised. We loved each other, and we were ready to fight for each other and pull off an outcome together that would go down in football history.
What happened in the days after this historic triumph? When we got back to the hotel, we were channel-hopping and we saw that we were being talked about all over the world. TV channels in China, in other parts of Asia, and South America were covering the Senegal Football World Cup team news were being broadcast into homes everywhere. We had attained something extraordinary.
Did that win and the run that followed at the World Cup modify your life in any way? Of course, yes. It was the FIFA World Cup where El-Hadji Diouf showed he was a world-class player. It’s great to play in the Champions League or to play in a big league, but the very best players are the ones who excel in their state team’s jersey.
That Football World Cup changed my life. It’s what led to me being named in the FIFA 100, Pele’s list of the greatest living football players. If I hadn’t played at the World Cup and shown how talented I was, I wouldn’t have become a CAF and FIFA legend. Are you still in touch with your friends from the 2002 Senegal team?
We’re not just friends; we’re buddies. We’re all part of the Senegal family, and we’re all Lions. Back home, we say, “Once a Lion, always a Lion.” We still get organised we’ve got a WhatsApp group, and we still have a good giggle. Some of them are no longer with us, and that’s a pity. But we’ll always stick together and remain true to our philosophy and our homeland.
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