Teams of the Decade #16: Senegal, World Cup 02

January 19, 2010

In terms of one-off results, Senegal beating France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup was the biggest shock of the decade. It’s one of those results that has gone down in history, so it’s difficult to set the scene to describe what an upset it was. Here goes…

France were not just the favourites for the tournament, they were the World Champions, the European Champions, featured the best player in the world in Zinedine Zidane, as well as the top scorer in the preceding season in Serie A (David Trezeguet), the Premiership (Thierry Henry) and Ligue 1 (Djibril Cisse). Most of their squad remained unchanged from the one which had lifted the World Cup four years earlier.

Senegal had qualified for their first-ever World Cup, and featured a squad of virtual unknowns. They were 500-1 to win the tournament, and most expected them to finish bottom of the group. As a former French colony, it was even suggested that this was a virtual France B-team – if any of the players were good enough to play on the biggest stage, they would have elected to play for France, as Patrick Vieira (born in Senegal) did.

One thing that worked to Senegal’s advantage was the fact that 21 of their 23-man squad played their football in France (the exceptions were the two reserve goalkeepers), and their coach, Bruno Metsu, was a Frenchman. He focussed on France’s weaknesses, reportedly strongly using video footage to demonstrate how the World Champions were beatable. It should also be noted that he had guided Senegal to the final of the 2002 African Cup of Nations, where they lost on penalties to Cameroon.

Senegal set out with a 4-1-4-1 formation, tirelessly battling in midfield and looking to support El-Hadhi Diouf, the lone frontman. Aliou Cisse played the centre-half role well, winning the ball consistently in midfield and looking for the wide men.

It worked pretty well –  African Football of the Year Diouf’s incredible pace outwitted the ageing Chelsea partnership of Frank Lebouef and Marcel Desailly time and time again, and Senegal constantly looked to send the ball over the top for him to chase – incredibly, he was caught offside twelve times in the game.

The goal demonstrates brilliantly the three things Senegal did well (a) incredibly intense pressing in midfield, giving Djorkaeff no time on the ball, (b) playing the ball into space for Diouf to run onto, and (c) getting men in the box. The phrase ‘counter-attacking football’ is always used to signify attacks launched from deep in a team’s own half, but equally it can simply stem from balls won in midfield, as shown here.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the France result – Senegal went onto become only the second African side in history to make the quarter-final of the World Cup. They picked up draws against Denmark and Uruguay – the latter having been 3-0 up at half-time after an incredible first-half performance, before sneaking past Sweden in the second round.

The goal against Denmark summed the side up best – an incredible counter-attack that went the length of the pitch in fourteen seconds.

They were unfortunate to go out to Turkey on a golden goal, although their performance in the match was very poor, and was bafflingly lacking in the desire they’d shown in their opening four matches.

Metsu left after the World Cup – although not before marrying a Senegalese woman, and converting to Islam. He has spent the past eight years managing in the Middle East, enjoying success throughout, and is currently in charge of Qatar.

Half of the World Cup squad ended up playing the Premiership, the vast majority as journeymen at bottom-half clubs. Senegal failed to qualify for the subsequent two World Cups.

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