Senegal's Lions graduate with a first

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The Independent Online

The gilded footballers of Brazil, England and the Netherlands may be struggling to qualify for next year's World Cup but a previously unheralded West African nation has already booked their passage to Japan and South Korea.

Senegal has hitherto been known in sports circles only for providing the finishing point of the Paris to Dakar rally. But since Saturday night the Senegalese capital which, famously, Mark Thatcher failed to locate, was thronged with cheering crowds after the "Lions of Teranga" qualified for the Finals for the first time.

They upset what was shaping as a clean sweep for Africa's footballing aristocracy with all five of the continent's 1998 qualifiers on course to return. Cameroon, South Africa and Tunisia have already qualified, Nigeria are favoured to do so, and Morocco were expected to emerge from Group C to complete the quintet.

But defeat in Dakar 10 days ago opened up the group and Senegal went into Saturday's match in Namibia knowing if they won handsomely, and Egypt failed to win in Algeria, they would edge out Morocco on goal difference. Senegal won 5-0, while Egypt, intimidated by an atmosphere so hostile they have made a doomed request to Fifa, the world governing body, for a re-match, were held 1-1. Senegal thus became the ninth African team to reach the World Cup Finals since their inception in 1930.

It is a stunning achievement for a country with little pedigree in the game, at world, regional or junior level. At 70 in the Fifa rankings, they are only the 13th best team in Africa. But Senegal does have talented young players making the grade in Europe, especially in France. El Hadji Diouf, who scored nine goals in the qualifying campaign, was successful with Lens last year; his fellow striker Khalilou Fadiga is at Auxerre and others play with Paris St-Germain, Monaco, Sedan and in Switzerland and Norway.

The French coach, Bruno Metsu, is credited with instilling a more professional approach but he was only appointed in December and the real impetus came from below. Between 1995 and 1999 160 academies were set up to coach young Senegalese, primarily by private organisations who finance them by exporting successes to Europe. One of the best, producing a string of graduates, is bankrolled by Monaco. Others, as elsewhere in Africa, are less fruitful turning out failed players with inadequate educations.

The government, which is trying to reform the system, wasted no time in jumping on the World Cup bandwagon. The president, Abdoulaye Wade, who came to power last year after 26 years in opposition, was in France when Independence Square began filling with jubilant supporters on Saturday but he quickly issued a televised address in which he said: "We have entered a winning era for Senegal." He then cut short his European visit to join the triumphant cavalcade when the team returned on Sunday and hosted a reception yesterday.

Nigeria are expected to reassert the established order on Saturday by defeating Ghana in Lagos. Should they fail Liberia will be handed a World Cup debut doubtless sparking similar celebrations in Freetown.