It’s fair to say that El Hadji Diouf had a controversial run in football. From crashing his car while driving without a licence during his time at Rennes, to spitting at various people while at Liverpool; from insulting an Everton ball boy to abusing Jamie Mackie after the then-QPR striker had broken his leg, prompting Neil Warnock to say “I was going to call him a sewer rat but that might be insulting the sewer rats”; from being fined £5,000 for an altercation with Neil Lennon during a fractious Old Firm derby to making an obscene gesture towards Brighton fans while at Leeds, and being sent off for the umpteenth time as a result; Diouf was never far away from rancour, animosity and polemical criticism during his 17-year senior career.
That career might have been very different – and nowhere near as high-profile – had it not been for events at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. It was a tournament of numerous upsets and surprises. South Korea got to the semi-finals, spawning endless referee-related conspiracy theories after beating Italy and Spain in contentious circumstances. Turkey were also shock contenders in the semis, while relatively big hitters like Uruguay, Portugal, Argentina and reigning champions France went out at the group stage.
El Hadji Diouf from Senegal slapped France in the first day of World Cup 2002
— Wahyu Ichwandardi (@pinot) June 10, 2010
France were perhaps the biggest underachievers having won the World Cup on home soil in 1998, crashing out in Korea with a single point at the group stage despite boasting the talents of Patrick Vieira, Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry, among others. Their campaign got off to the worst possible start with defeat in the opening match of the tournament. Their opponents that day? None other than El Hadji Diouf and Senegal.
Weight of history
Having only gained independence from France in 1960, Senegal’s underdog status took on historical significance in the context of a clash with Les Bleus. The close links between the two countries were played out on the pitch, in the dugout and among supporters back home. Where Patrick Vieira was born in Dakar – the capital of Senegal and, coincidentally, the birthplace of El Hadji Diouf four and a half years later – the Senegalese national team were coached by former Lille and OGC Nice midfielder Bruno Metsu.
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Of Senegal’s 23-man squad, all but two played for clubs in France. Diouf had already turned out for Sochaux, Rennes and Lens at this point in his career, though he was already close to agreeing terms with Liverpool by the time Senegal faced Les Bleus in Seoul. Meanwhile, with a significant Senegalese diaspora living in France and thousands of French expatriates living in Senegal, there were no doubt fans cheering for different teams side-by-side, or at least within earshot, in the cafés, restaurants and apartment blocks of Paris and Dakar alike.
As a Francophone side, Senegal were well placed to play mind games with their French counterparts. Unsurprisingly, Diouf took up the role of bullish team spokesman before the match. “I believe we will beat France. We are not going all the way to Korea to look for a draw, you can trust me on that,” he said.
In a pointed remark given France’s colonial history in Senegal, Diouf went on: “We have nothing to lose and everything to win against the French, and we would love to defy them. We want this generation [of Senegal players] to leave its mark on the world scene and be long remembered in the history of African and world football. We’ll defend Senegal’s colours with absolutely everything we have.”
Senegal stun France
As it was, Senegal overcame France with a careful balance of defence and attack as dictated to the letter by Metsu. Speaking to French football magazine So Foot in 2013, former Senegal right-back Ferdinand Coly said: “Everything happened as Metsu said it would. We knew exactly what to do: to defend well, to go at them very hard. The base was the four defenders, the last line of defence.” Coly went up against Henry that day, frustrating the world-famous Arsenal striker just as his teammates scrambled to thwart French attacks time after time.
With regards to Metsu, Coly said: “His pre-match speech was very, very strong. With that long hair and those blue eyes, he was able to galvanise any player. At each contact, you had to be there. We could lose this match, but we had to know that we were warriors.”
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It wasn’t just Senegal’s defenders who battled for the win, however. Up front on his own in a counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation, Diouf tore France’s ageing back line apart. Targeting Frank Leboeuf in particular, he caused chaos in the midst of the French defence. He even skinned Leboeuf on the flank before crossing in for hulking Lens teammate Papa Bouba Diop to open the scoring. “Diouf makes a monkey of the glacier-quick Leboeuf on the left wing and leaves him absolutely for dead. (No surprise there.)” Barry Glendenning wrote in The Guardian’s live blog. A few minutes later came the pithy addendum: “Diouf wins another free kick from Leboeuf, who is being made to look like an idiot.”
As it turned out, Diop’s scrappy, scooped finish would be the winner for Les Lions de la Téranga. France’s best chance came early on when Trezeguet smashed a shot against the post, but the ball ricocheted clear. “Senegal riveted a global audience and tantalised France with a performance of daring innovation,” was the post-match judgement offered up in The Telegraph after the unfancied African side stunned one of the tournament’s European superpowers. Two draws against Denmark and Uruguay later, and Senegal were through to the knockouts. France would go on to finish bottom of the group with one point and zero goals to their name.
While that was probably the pinnacle of the tournament for Senegal, the excitement certainly didn’t end there. Having earned a reputation for ill-discipline during the group stage – Diouf’s future Liverpool teammate Salif Diao both scored and saw red against Denmark, while the team accrued seven yellow cards during their topsy-turvy 3-3 draw with Uruguay – they nonetheless defied expectations once again when they beat Sweden after extra time in the Round of 16.
That left Senegal facing fellow overachievers Turkey in the quarters, with the possibility of Diouf and co. becoming the first African side ever to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. They were downed by a golden goal scored by Besiktas striker Ilhan Mansiz, this after a mediocre game which belied the anarchic joy which Senegal had brought to the competition.
Where Metsu may have been able to coach defensive strength and attacking verve into his side, he could not account for tournament fatigue among a group who few expected to get to the knockouts, let alone within striking distance of the semis. Senegal went home as a second team to supporters all over the world, lauded for their wild and enterprising football as inspired in no small part by Diouf.
The 2002 World Cup shot him to brief superstardom, though his career trajectory would burn bright at Liverpool before re-entering orbit as a flaming hunk of space metal and crashing through Bolton, Sunderland, Blackburn, Glasgow, Doncaster, Leeds and Malaysia. Still, while Diouf may not have remained universally popular with football fans, the Senegal side which went to Korea and Japan are fondly remembered to this day.