Lions’ share

Only Senegal prevented the reappearance of the same five African teams who made it to the World Cup in 1998. James Copnall reports on an exuberant upset

Successive wins against Morocco and Namibia pro­pelled Senegal to the World Cup for the first time ever, and launched hundreds of thousands of Sen­e­galese into the capital Dakar’s dusty streets for a party that lasted all night and long into the next day. A last-gasp 5-0 victory over the feeble Namibians, coupled with Egypt’s 1-1 draw away to Algeria, sealed the tightest of World Cup groups in favour of the “Lions of the Teranga”, who can now start planning their excursion to Japan and South Korea.

Perhaps the key moment of the whole qualifying campaign had come a week earlier, when an experienced Morocco side landed in Dakar needing just a point, but lost 1-0 in a thriller. The match, played be­fore a capacity 60,000 crowd, many of them wearing the inaugural imitation national team jerseys, was per­haps more passionate than polished. But it was won by a goal of high quality, the Rasta right-back Ferdinand Coly escaping to the corner flag and sketching a perfect centre to the prodigious feet of El Hadji Diouf, whose volley left the Moroccan keeper Fouhami helpless.

Such a result, against a side present at USA 94 and France 98 and who Senegal had only beaten twice in their history, must surely be considered an upset. Not according to legendary former striker and current assistant coach Jules François Bocandé. “Boc” maintains that “these days Senegal can beat any team here in Dakar – even France or Brazil. At home we are very strong.” But it would be away that Senegal needed to win to achieve a qualification that even the fabled Bocandé generation had never managed. What is more, as the Lions were level on points with Egypt but behind on goal difference, only a large victory in Namibia would guarantee progression.

As it turned out, Egypt could only draw away to their north African rivals Algeria, and Senegal’s thumping of a largely locally based Namibian team was relatively straightforward, give or take the odd shaky moment following midfielder Pape Sarr’s expulsion. Cheikh Sadibou Diop, president of the supporters’ association Douz­ième Gaïndé (which means “Twelfth Lion” in a combination of French and the local language, Wolof ) said: “This victory has delighted the entire population – it is a great, great satisfaction. People who have not heard of our country will now go and look us up on the map. Now the whole world will know Senegal.”

Senegal had always been considered something of a World Cup underachiever, despite a long history of stars who graced the French championship. In that they are far from alone among their west African neighbours. However, nations such as Ivory Coast and Ghana – also great producers of talent but still waiting to reach their first World Cup – can claim to have won the African Nations’ Cup (in Ghana’s case a record four times), whereas Senegal are still chasing their first continental triumph. Despite putting out strong teams at regular intervals in the competition’s history, none came closer to winning it than the side that lost 2-1 to the host nation Algeria in the semi-finals in 1990.

The same nation stood in their way in the fearsome 2002 qualifying group, together with two other experienced World Cup nations in Morocco and Egypt, and few expected Senegal to put up much of a fight. The cam­paign started slowly, the first two games ending in draws in Algeria and at home against Egypt – games Senegal dominated but could not kill off. But after Ger­man coach Peter Schnittger was replaced by pony-tailed Frenchman Bruno Metsu, the team scored seven without reply at home against Namibia and Algeria. That, combined with a scoreless draw in Morocco, put Senegal in a position to overtake the north Africans.

“We pipped everyone at the post because we have a fantastic group of talented, disciplined and serious players,” Metsu said. “If you are put in a group with Morocco, Egypt and Algeria and you manage to win it, that is a real indication of your worth.” Senegal has always had bundles of talented footballers, but the national team has not always made best use of them. Bocandé was ignored for long years at the start of the 1980s, for example, following an incident in the dom­estic cup final in which he attacked a referee. Worse still, Senegal did not even enter a team for the 1990 World Cup, due to an administrative error.

This time around, Metsu used his extensive con­tacts in France to ensure all Senegal’s foreign-based professionals bound themselves to the national cause – Patrick Vieira and Ibrahim Ba being among those allowed to slip away in the past. All 11 who lined up against Morocco play for French first division teams, and for the first time ever Senegal has a 20-player national squad comprised entirely of foreign-based professionals. The team are mostly products of the exceptional French football academies, with defensive mainstay Coly and midfielder Khalilou Fadiga of Aux­erre both having been in France since childhood.

Unlike their French counterparts, Senegal will not have high hopes of winning the World Cup, but in a sense this does not matter. The convoys of hooting cars, each with four or five people clinging on to the roof with one hand and frantically waving the national flag with the other, and the hundreds of thousands of people who swarmed to the airport to welcome home the returning heroes, are testament enough to the joys a World Cup qualification brings.

So great was the crush of people lined up to greet them, the Lions took four hours to cover the 15 miles from the airport to the city centre – nothing compared to the 40 years it has taken them to get to the World Cup. There is no doubt it has been worth the wait. 

From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month