'All the gods were with us': Salif Diao tells the inside story of Senegal's historic campaign at the 2002 World Cup

Senegal beat the holders France in the first game of the 2002 World Cup and surged all the way to the quarter-finals. But as Salif Diao explains, they should have done even better

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Tuesday 19 June 2018 15:00 BST
World Cup Opening Ceremony

When Bruno Metsu told the Senegal players that beating France would be “an earthquake in the world”, he did not just have an eye on future history books. He also had a problem he wanted to go away. The team’s achievements has since consigned it to the footnotes of the story, but before their first game at the 2002 World Cup the Senegal team was engulfed by scandal.

Five days before the opener, Khalilou Fadiga, Salif Diao and El Hadji Diouf were in a jewellery shop in Daegu, and Diouf had dared Fadiga to steal a necklace. Fadiga was born in Colobane, one of the toughest districts of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, before growing up in the poor Paris suburbs. So Diouf joked that he could.

But Fadiga surprised his team-mates on the bus to training when he proudly produced 18-carat heart-shaped necklace from his pocket. The Senegal team were even more surprised that night when the story was all over the news, when officials from the Senegalese embassy marched into their restaurant and Fadiga was questioned by South Korean police.

It was the worst possible distraction on the eve of the biggest game of their lives. But manager Bruno Metsu knew how to turn it into motivation. “Everyone is talking about this,” he told his players. “The only way people can forget about this is to beat France. If you don’t win, this story carries on. But if you want to save your friend, you have to win this game. People will forget about it. Because if we win this game, it will be an earthquake in the world.”

Despite the seismic impact of Senegal beating France 1-0, one of the greatest World Cup upsets ever, the Senegal team all believed victory was destiny. Hearing Salif Diao describe it all, in a Costa Coffee in Liverpool 16 years on, the most striking thing is the supreme sense of calm and togetherness the Senegal team shared. “We were all believers, Muslim or Christian, and we all said it was too beautiful for us to come into this game and fail,” Diao says. “All the gods were with us. Our first World Cup, our first game, and we drew France. The way things happened, we couldn’t fail.”

The night before that opening game in Seoul, Diao was still up at 2am. His mother Maimouna Diallo was doing his braids in his hotel room. “How come we were not sleeping? Because we never felt stressed. We were very, very relaxed. It never crossed my mind that we were going to lose.”

There is a popular image of African dressing rooms as all music and noise, but what Diao most remembers about the morning of the France game was the silence. Between a group of players who had grown up together and no longer needed words. “We had something that was very powerful between us, we did not need to communicate,” he says. “We would be together, just talking with our eyes. I would be looking at you, knowing you knew what to do.”

So when the Senegal team arrived at the brand new stadium in Seoul, they did not need to say a word. “When we went to the stadium, everyone was really relaxed. The silence before the war. From lunch-time, people would only be talking with the eyes. We had that belief, we knew there was a job to be done, and we were going to win the game.”

Few teams have ever gone into the first match of a tournament as fancied as France did for the opener of the 2002 World Cup. The team had won France ’98 and Euro 2000. Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord and Thierry Henry had just won the double with Arsenal, Zinedine Zidane had just scored his Champions League final volley for Real Madrid. Every other team in the world would have been intimidated, but Senegal were not.

Senegal's players celebrate after scoring against France at the 2002 World Cup
Senegal's players celebrate after scoring against France at the 2002 World Cup (Getty)

“If you know all the history that happened, it was an occasion for Africa, or Senegal, to say yes we can beat the colonial power,” says Diao. But that shared history also provided a unique familiarity. Twenty-one of Senegal’s 23-man squad played their football in France and many of them had been brought up there. They could have played for France, they embraced the tag of ‘France B team’ and they would have supported France had Senegal not been there. “A lot of people say that France and Senegal is like the number six and number nine,” Diao says, “the same really.”

His own story is typical: he played for Monaco’s academy in Senegal before moving to Monaco at 16. There, he grew up alongside Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, while Fabien Barthez and Emmanuel Petit were in the first team. “For us, it wasn’t like we played against world champions,” says Diao. “It was like we were playing against friends.” So they knew helpful details too, like how scared Henry was of Ferdinand Coly, the RC Lens right-back back he was up against. “He was a very rough guy,” Diao says. “He’d break your legs.”

Metsu’s plan was simple: defend hard, break fast. “We had our trap,” Diao says. “We knew our strength was in defence. And on the counter-attack, we had players like Dioufy and Fadiga, who 1v1 will take the piss against the best defenders in the world. We never thought about a Plan B, because we were 100 per cent sure that Plan A was going to work.” Sure enough, 30 minutes in, Diouf skipped past Franck Lebouef and crossed for Papa Bouba Diop to score a goal heard round the world.


That win was a salvation for Fadiga and vindication for Metsu. Afterwards he told the players to enjoy their night but that they had to prove to the world this was not a one-off. “We knew it wasn’t luck,” Diao says. “The last thing we wanted people to say was that we beat France by luck.”

They flew back to Daegu to face Denmark, with Diouf telling the BBC they were going to make the other teams “shit themselves”, causing chaos everywhere. But 15 minutes in, the Senegal defence were caught by a quick throw in to Jon Dahl Tomasson. Diao was the only player alert, he sprinted back, bundled Tomasson over and conceded a penalty which Tomasson scored. In the seconds after the foul, Diao could only think about everyone at home he had let down.

“The first thing that came into my mind in that moment was my family. I was not the player of Senegal, I was the son of Mr Diao. In Africa they say that if you are a good son, you are the son of the whole community. If you are a bad son, you are the son of your father. The second was my ethnic group, Peulh [Fula]. Then my home town, Kedougou, which means ‘Land of Men’. That comes in two, three seconds. Shit. You’re on your own. And if you lose the game, people will be saying ‘he’s another Peulh guy, from that area.’ So I said OK, we need to sort it out.”

Senegal line up ahead of their quarter-final against Turkey
Senegal line up ahead of their quarter-final against Turkey (Getty)

Diao responded by scoring one of the goals of the tournament: sweeping a first-time pass to Fadiga, deep inside his own half, sprinting the length of the pitch, finishing the return pass. So how did he find that within himself? “All of us Africans, we always find a resource within ourselves, within our background, to go and pull energy to sort things out. I could have thought my game was done, I’m finished. But you have to be a solid character to go and find that positive energy. To help you go to another level. You are not yourself anymore. You are another person, like a movie superhero.”

That is part of why none of these players – Diao included – were as good in their club careers as they were for a few weeks in 2002. “We will always play better for our national team than for our club,” Diao says. “In England, it’s the reverse. They cannot find that energy for the national team. It’s something we cannot understand. But we always raised our level. Because we have those tools we can find deep inside us, coming back from history and our ancestors.”

Diao was suspended for the third game, against Uruguay in Suwon, and during the second half he started crying on the bench. His team had gone 3-0 up in the first half but the game turned when Diouf enraged the Uruguayans with some showboating just before the break. “In the corridor they said not to disrespect them,” Diao says. “We knew there was going to be another Uruguay because we touched their pride, and in the second half they came out like warriors.”

Salif Diao tussles for possession with Emmanuel Petit during France vs Senegal
Salif Diao tussles for possession with Emmanuel Petit during France vs Senegal (Getty)

The problem for Senegal was that Diao was the brains of the team and without him they had no control in midfield. Uruguay started to exploit the space where Diao would have been and there was nothing he could do to stop it. “I could just see the shifting happening, I knew we were going to have issues. We had a lot of weaknesses on the team, we were so open, and I knew that we could get hurt.”

Richard Morales made it 3-1, Diego Forlan made it 3-2 and Diao was distraught. “I started crying on the bench when Uruguay scored their second goal,” he says. “If I was on the pitch, with the feeling I had, what was happening would never have happened.” Uruguay inevitably made it 3-3 in the last minute. But Senegal went through to last-16 where they faced Sweden in Oita, producing their best performance to win 2-1 in extra-time, setting up a quarter-final with Turkey.


“You need to be a very good manager and a very good psychologist to deal with senior players that grew up in Africa, act like Africans in an African environment, but have been in Europe playing top-level football,” says Diao. His admiration for Metsu, a Frenchman from Dunkirk who got the best out of footballers from Senegal, could not be clearer.

“You have to really understand the African mentality, and the difference between a European environment and an African environment. It’s very delicate. Africa is a free spirit. Players express themselves. You cannot just come in and start instigating rules, you have to do this or that. Metsu would say it does not matter what we do, how we prepare, but when the referee whistles, he wanted to see lions ready to eat whatever is in front of them.”

Senegal were a riot of colour and energy at the World Cup
Senegal were a riot of colour and energy at the World Cup (Getty)

That relaxed attitude – Metsu would cancel training at short notice if he felt the players needed a rest - had helped these players to play their best. “We were just there to have fun, no stress,” he says. “The team was open to the press. Any journalist could just come to the hotel, sit with the players, we would just be playing drums, enjoying ourselves, do an interview. It was our strength, because we were just having fun. But something happened before the Turkey game that changed the whole dynamic of the group.”

Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade decided to put a stop to Metsu’s open environment, sending a special envoy to the team base who took over operations. “I remember when they came in,” says Diao, “they called out the coach and the squad, said congratulations on the job you have done, but we don’t like the way things are happening. It was shocking, very disrespectful. They came in, setting rules, telling players to be quieter, to stay in their room after training and rest.” Diao remembers Metsu’s anger: “This is my team, I have been running it my way and getting results. If you want to run it your way, we will see what the result is.”

Cooped up in their hotel rooms by themselves, with nothing to do but stress about the game, Senegal’s energy and momentum sapped away. “I remember that 48 hours, we only saw each other at lunch time and at training,” Diao says. “The rest was in your room, looking at the ceiling, playing the game hundreds and hundreds of times in your head. I got drained, mentally and psychologically. That’s the feeling everyone had.”

So when the players showed up for their quarter-final in Osaka, they had nothing left in the tank. And Metsu knew it. “Guys, I know you are drained mentally, I can see it,” Metsu told them. “You’ve played the game hundreds of times, this is the thing I never wanted. I know it doesn’t suit African players, you just want to go out there and have fun.”

The players desperately wanted to be the first African semi-finalists. But the mental exhaustion caught up with them. “You have that side of you saying ‘shit, I’m so tired, I’m done with this’’, Diao remembers. “All of the pressure is coming out, being away for two months, missing home, missing your family. We did not have that mental freshness. That spontaneous thing we had, we lost it. We were playing with the psychological hand-brake on.” Senegal were eventually over-powered by Turkey in extra-time.


Senegal flew home as Africa’s second ever quarter-finalists and national heroes, paraded around Dakar . But Diao does not see it that way. “We could have gone to the next stage,” he says. “I cannot be satisfied by that. So I always say to the next generation: don’t be small winners. We acted like small winners. We proved something, but we could have proved a lot more.”

That may be right. But this Senegal team left a mark that no African team has surpassed since. And they left a legacy of pride. “What people don’t understand: football is a lot more than a game in Africa,” Diao explains. “When Senegal play, any guy who is maybe having a bad moment in his life, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t even have somewhere to live or sleep, or doesn’t have a meal, or is sick, or dying…the day Senegal is playing, he is part of the team. If the team wins this guy is proud. Because he feels like he’s won. That’s why football is a lot more for Africa. This takes people out of that sphere of negativity, that sphere of not reaching out to goodness. The only moment in Africa when people forget everything, is when a game is happening.”

Senegal celebrate Henri Camara's goal against Sweden at the Oita Big Eye Stadium. Senegal won 2-1 after extra time
Senegal celebrate Henri Camara's goal against Sweden at the Oita Big Eye Stadium. Senegal won 2-1 after extra time (Getty)

That – more than any individual – was the source of the power of this, arguably Africa’s greatest ever World Cup team. “Because you’re not only playing for you. When the national anthem is happening, you can see your mum, your dad, your own kids, your neighbours, the guy you don’t know who is there supporting you, the guy who took all his money to buy his ticket to come to the stadium to dream for two hours, the guy who is in the village in the middle of nowhere, listening to the report on his little radio, and this guy, you’re touching him. A woman who doesn’t have a clue about football, but because Senegal is winning, she is out there believing, she is part of something. When the national anthem is going on, you represent all of these people that don’t have a voice to say anything, and who never have the feeling of winning something.”

“I have met people who said the France game is how he met his wife, they got married. I met guys who said, me and my brother went for 10 years not speaking to each other, but the day Senegal beat France, they hugged and made up. When you’re playing for your country, it’s more than anything else you can do.”

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