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It is a Friday, day of prayer. And miracles too. This May 31, 2002, a country and a continent turn to Seoul in South Korea. Shortly before noon (time difference obliges), the Senegal faces in the opening match of the World Cup a dizzying opponent: France. It is therefore difficult to imagine that such a “small” nation – which is taking part in the first World Cup in its history – can break this tricolor army, defending champion.
France-Senegal is the duel of all imbalances and, however, the Blues of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet (Zinédine Zidane, injured in a thigh, is on the bench) will fall from their pedestal. Everything changes at the 30e minute: El-Hadji Diouf overflows on the left and the center; Emmanuel Petit tries to clear the leather but it bounces off Fabien Barthez who gets lost in his exit. In ambush, Papa Bouba Diop, who arrives out of nowhere, slips the ball into the back of the net.
The Senegalese midfielder rushes towards a corner post, takes off his jersey to place it on the grass and begins to dance around his white tunic with his teammates. The Senegalese hold the score until the final whistle (0-1) and humiliate, in passing, the natural contenders for the final victory. In front of the football planet, the Lions of Teranga have just crunched Roosters so far feared. “After this victory, chickens were missing in Senegal, we had eaten them all”recalls with a burst of laughter Cheikh Fantamady Keïta, journalist for the daily The sun. France lost. Africa is dancing and all of Africa will continue to dance during this World Cup.
Pride is intact
Because the feat of the Lions is not limited to beating the world champions: they manage to climb to the quarter-finals. Facing Turkey, the Senegalese, trained by Frenchman Bruno Metsu, held firm; but they are eliminated because of a golden goal scored at the start of the first overtime (0-1). Returning to the country, the Lions are acclaimed: a team is born, a legend too.
January 25, 2022. On the lawn of Bafoussam in Cameroon, Bamba Dieng, a 21-year-old kid, scores his first goal for the Senegalese team against Cape Verde in the round of 16 of the African Cup of Nations (2-0) . Here he is, spinning towards the corner post and dancing like Papa Bouba Diop (died in November 2020). “I have always thought that they should [la génération 2002] pay homage »explains the young Lion. “This tribute to Pape Bouba Diop is a gesture of union between all generations, that of 2002 and that of today”notes in turn El-Hadji Diouf, who has since become a living god in his country.
This celebration filled Aliou Cissé, the coach of Senegal, with joy. “It’s moving”, he acknowledges. And that’s normal: he was the charismatic captain of the 2002 team. Today, his dreadlocks are longer, the glasses wider and the smile is immutable. “A lot of boys followed us back then. Some tell me they were running behind our bus in 2002. Today I have the chance to train them”, he adds. Twenty years after this epic, the pride is intact.
However, as golden as it is, the 2002 generation “has never won anything, recalled Aliou Cissé during a press conference on 1er February, on the eve of facing Burkina Faso in the CAN semi-finals (1-3). She knew how to bring happiness to our people. » It serves as a landmark and ” reference “ new players and coaching too. “There are quite a few members from 2002 who are on my staff”he specified.
The best African team
When he took over the national team in March 2015 – after having made his coaching debut with the Olympic selection – he had everything to rebuild: a few weeks before his appointment, in Equatorial Guinea, the Lions were released from the CAN from the first round. He brings back order, discipline, promising players like Kalidou Koulibaly and dual nationals. He will, above all, rely more and more on the future guide of the selection: Sadio Mané.
The Senegalese Football Federation is becoming more structured and “become professionalattests the journalist Cheikh Fantamady Keïta. Expenses such as premiums are paid on time ». The institution also has a team manager (function of super steward) who carries out prospecting missions or even allows players to no longer take airliners during a trip. “Before, we had to make connections, we slept in airports”explained Aliou Cissé to the World.
At the end of 2015, Senegal is 44e in the International Football Federation (FIFA) ranking. Today, she points to the 18e place and remains the best African team for several years. And that’s understandable: a CAN quarter-final (in 2017), a lost final (in 2019) and finally a first continental victory at the start of the year.
At the 2018 World Cup (one defeat, one draw, one victory), Senegal was eliminated, finishing third in its group behind Japan, which nevertheless had the same number of points. The Teranga Lions are victims of the new FIFA regulations – fair play – used for the first time in the World Cup to decide between two teams: they took two more yellow cards than the Blue Samurais. Cruel.
Sadio Mané injured and forfeited
In Qatar, Senegal – who share their group with hosts Ecuador and Holland – are participating in their third World Cup and hope to become the first African nation to progress beyond the quarter-finals. “There are common points between the generation of 2002 and 2022: aggressiveness, solidarity in the group and the pleasure of playing together”says Cheikh Fantamady Keïta.
The African champions are feared, but their supreme guide, Sadio Mané, was injured and had to forfeit a few days before the first match against the Netherlands on Monday 21 November. Learning to win without him is a new challenge. Anyway, for Aliou Cissé who is about to experience his third World Cup (once as a player and twice as a coach), the ambition is clear: ” There have been several phases in the history of African teams in the World Cup. At the beginning, we went there to discover, then to learn, finally to exist. Now we are going to win. The level gap between South America and Africa has narrowed. There are no more small teams. We have the experience. We are going to Qatar in all humility, but we must not be disrespected. »