Today in history: Senegal upset France in World Cup opener

Papa Bouba Diop’s first half goal handed Senegal their first ever World Cup finals victory and bloodied the nose of the World Cup holders, widely tipped to be poised for a successful defence. France may have been missing Zinedine Zidane but the impact of the African victory was profound.

France with top scorers from three major European leagues were denied from scoring a goal in all their three group games: Thierry Henry was the English Premier League top scorer,  while Trezeguet was the joint top scorer in the Italian Serie A and Jibril Cisse won the French League one goal king.

France Thus  became the first holders to surrender their title defence at the group stage Since Brazil in 1966. Italy were the first to set this infamous record in 1950 and Brazil follwed suit in 1966. France became the third country in 2002 and again Italy in 2010.

They didn’t just think, they knew, that they could win a second straight World Cup. Even though their star playmaker Zinedine Zidane who had scored two goals in the World Cup final in 1998 was liable to be out injured for the group stages, so convinced were France that they would glide through these games that they didn’t break sweat about Zidane’s absence, especially for the opening game in Seoul, against lowly Senegal.

After all Senegal were taking part in their first ever World Cup and were supposed to be there just to make up the numbers. So as the game kicked off, France, looking good in their light blue soccer uniforms swarmed all over the Senegalese goal, as the fans sat back expecting a goal feast. So intent were the French players in putting on a show that they seemed to want to walk the ball into the net, and instead fell over themselves as the heat and humidity of a Seoul summer night began to take its toll.

And even more annoying a young and gifted player who was embarking on a successful career in all places but the French League with Lens was creating havoc on both wings, as the Senegalese began to launch some pretty effective counter attacking moves. That young man was El Hadji Diouf and he had the Senegalese supports and most of the neutrals on their feet in the thirtieth minute when yet another telling cross was converted by his Lens teammate Papa Bouba Diop, after a misunderstanding between Emmanuel Petit and the French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

The French didn’t seem to be that phased by going a goal down, and they again took up their attacking pose with no real effectiveness. Everything seemed to be on Senegal’s side as they beat of wave or wave of French attacks. Thierry Hendry and Christophe Dugarry both managed to hit the woodwork twice and the Senegal captain Aliou Cisse played the game of his life to keep the French at bay till the referee blew his final whistle to signal a history victory for Senegal. It was obvious that the French had totally underrated the Senegalese team who had finished as runners up in the African championships just a few months before.

Instead of making a dramatic recovery in their remaining games, things went from bad to worse for France in the remaining group stage games. In their second game, France were held to a goalless draw by Uruguay and had their star striker Thierry Henry sent off to make things even more difficult for them in their vital third game against Denmark. On the upside, Zidane was ready to take part in this game, but he made little impact to the disorganized and demoralized “Les Bleus” The 2-0 defeat by Denmark saw France make an embarrassing exit from World Cup 2002, without managing to score a goal and with the only title they won being the worst World Cup performance by a defending champion. And as for “lowly” Senegal they made it to the quarter finals, drawing with both Uruguay and Denmark in the group stages, beating Sweden after extra time, and losing to Turkey by just a single goal, also after extra time. El Hadji Diouf was the outstanding player for Senegal in 2002 and won himself a transfer to Liverpool as a result. And the French learned a valuable lesson – never to take the opposition for granted.

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