Tuesday 31 May 2022, 07:30

Diouf: Senegal’s win over France is the World Cup's greatest

  • Senegal defeated holders France in the opening game of Korea/Japan 2002

  • El-Hadji Diouf was instrumental in that famous 1-0 victory

  • The ex-Liverpool star chatted about his memories of the tournament, where the Lions of Teranga reached the quarter-finals

Twenty years ago, on 31 May, France went into their opening encounter of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ against tournament debutants Senegal as reigning world and European champions.

On the day, the African underdogs, unfazed by the notion of crossing swords with Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Thierry Henry (Zinedine Zidane was sidelined with injury), pulled off a remarkable 1-0 victory in Seoul. Guided by French coach Bruno Metsu, who sadly died in 2013, they put in a memorable performance that made the entire football world sit up and notice.

As it transpired, Papa Bouba Diop, who himself passed away in 2020, slid in to score the only goal of the game for the Lions of Teranga in the 30th minute, after El-Hadji Diouf had burst away down the left flank and sent in a perfect low cross. FIFA+ met up with Diouf, an energetic and pacey winger who pulled on the jerseys of Sochaux, Lens, Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and Rangers, among others, to relive that unforgettable day and his country’s incredible run to the last eight.

Now 41, and having hung up his boots with 70 caps and 24 international goals to his name, the Dakar native is now an ambassador for Senegal’s various national teams and an advisor to current senior men’s team coach Aliou Cisse, who captained the 2002 side to the legendary triumph over France.

FIFA+ looks back, through Diouf’s eyes, on a sensational result that saw Senegal write an exciting new chapter in the history of African football.

FIFA+: What’s the first thing you remember about the 2002 World Cup?

El-Hadji Diouf: The first thing I actually remember about it is the draw! I was with the Lens squad in Monaco, and our coach Joel Muller had arranged it so that we could all watch the draw live. And who did we get? France, of course. At the time, I played alongside guys like Bruno Rodriguez, Cyril Rool, Daniel Moreira and Guillaume Warmuz, who were all part of a Lens team that had been challenging for honours. As soon as we saw that France would play Senegal, they all got up and started to make fun of me. That was it, they’d already made up their mind – Senegal stood no chance.

But I knew what a strong a team we had. We didn’t have any real stars at that time, but we were a solid unit, full of good friends who were desperate to create a bit of history and give the entire population, who had waited so long to see us at a World Cup, something to dream about. Being drawn against France was just the icing on the cake. We knew that everyone expected France to blow us away. We also knew, though, that 31 May 2002 might end up being our day.

Speaking of which, what kind of state in mind were you and your team-mates in that day?

The night before, we’d noticed that the French squad hadn’t come and trained on the pitch where the match was going to take place. It seemed like they’d decided that they didn’t need to do that if all they had to do was beat Senegal. According to the French papers, they were going to win 8-0. We’d heard so many things along those lines that we said to ourselves, “Hey, lads, we’re lions, after all; we’re not cockerels! How could a cockerel eat a lion? That’s impossible (laughs)!”

I remembered how my club team-mates had wound me up; I thought about a lot of things like that. We were a proud bunch, and we were keen make our families happy, and to be happy ourselves. We wanted our loved ones to be proud of us.

Papa Bouba Diop of Senegal scores the winning goal against France as goalkeeper Fabien Barthez

Was it more than a match then?

Yes, definitely. In fact, we wanted to keep making waves like Cameroon had done with Roger Milla and Co when they made it to the quarter-finals in 1990. And then Jay-Jay Okocha and Nigeria captured our hearts when they reached 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 – lads, we can do this!”

We owed it to ourselves to create a bit of African and World Cup history, because you can say what you like, but Senegal’s win over France is the greatest victory the tournament has ever seen.

France were world and European champions, let’s remember, with the best players in the world at the time, and some of the top goalscorers from the major leagues. And they were facing us, little old Senegal, with young players who’d come through youth systems back home and in France.

What would be the one thing that sticks in your mind from that day?

I remember us chatting before the match. Bruno Metsu came into the changing room and pulled his hair back, as he had a habit of doing. Then he said: “What can I possibly say to you today? We’ve been together for a long time now. I know you all so well. You’re a crazy bunch. I know that tonight, after the match is finished, people will be talking about you right across the world. Up you get, and show me what you’re capable of.”

It was tremendous. We didn’t need to say anything. He looked at us and knew we could go out there and win.

What was the atmosphere like during the match 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 annoyed. He proceeded 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 bag yet. You can give each other high fives after the match.” It was exactly what we needed.

Bruno was a coach who’d come out of nowhere and became the most Senegalese person on Earth! What I loved about him – but also about Jules-Francois Bocande, who was part of the backroom staff – was that when he spoke, we listened. They were like our parents, or our big brothers. We wanted to play for the jersey, to win, to work together. We loved each other, and we were ready to fight for each other and pull off a result together that would go down in football history.

Qatar's al-Gharrafa coach Bruno Metsu looks on

What happened in the days after this historic victory?

When we got back to the hotel, we were channel-hopping and we saw that we were being talked about all over the world. Television channels in China, in other parts of Asia, and in South America were covering us – the Lions were being broadcast into homes everywhere. We had achieved something extraordinary.

Did that win and the run that followed at the World Cup change your life in any way?

Of course, yes. It was the 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 national team’s jersey.

That World Cup changed my life. It’s what led to me being named in the FIFA 100, Pele’s list of greatest living footballers. 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 brothers. 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 together – we’ve got a WhatsApp group, and we still have a good laugh. Some of them are no longer with us, and that’s a pity. But we’ll always stick together and remain true to our culture and our homeland.

The Senegal team line up together for a group photograph prior to the match against France in 2002