Les Lions De La Téranga : How Senegal captured the heart of an entire continent in 2002

In 2002, the Senegalese senior men’s football team announced themselves not only in Africa, but also on the world stage. Nicknamed “Les Lions De La Téranga” which directly translates to The Lions of Téranga or as some people love to call them, The Téranga Lions, 2002 would go down as the year that they almost touched the stars.

For the Téranga Lions, participation at the FIFA World Cup had always been nothing but a mere dream prior to 2002. The African continent before then had been represented on the world stage by the so-called power houses of African football before 2002. Countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Morocco and Tunisia seemed like the nailed-on representatives from Africa while other countries like Ghana and Egypt were always in the conversation either due to their status in African competitions over the years – like in Ghana’s case – or the fact that they had qualified once or twice, a very long time ago (Egypt).

Since the 1965 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia where Senegal made its first appearance just after becoming an affiliate of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the country basically struggled to become a force to reckon with on the continent. In the 22 years that followed it’s first appearance in Africa’s biggest football competition, Senegal participated just twice. The ten years that followed saw a significant increase in the number of participations as they only missed out on two of the six tournaments that took place in that period.

By the year 2000, it was obvious that the team was growing and moving in the right direction. At the African Cup of Nations tournament co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria in 2000, Senegal – then coached by German manager, Peter Schnittger -made the quarter finals, where they lost out to co-hosts and strong favourites to win the tournament, Nigeria. The match was so fiercely contested that it took an extra-time goal by Julius Aghahowa to win the tie for the Nigerians. The Senegalese had a lot to be proud of as they went out with their heads held high.

After the tournament in 2000, the Senegalese Football Federation parted ways with Schnittger and appointed French coach, Bruno Metsu -may his soul rest in peace – to take charge of the team, a decision that eventually turned out to be very beneficial for the country’s football. Metsu’s main focus was to improve the spirit within his squad whilst bringing back certain players that had been shut out by the country’s football federation in the recent years prior to his appointment. He also brought in new faces into the side, young players that were talented; one of them was El Hadji Diouf, a player that would go on to become one of the finest players the country ever produced. Diouf was a diamond in the rough, his talent was however obvious for everyone to see even though he had a habit of getting into trouble once in a while. Metsu wasn’t fazed by that though, he fostered the spirit among his players by getting everyone to buy into his belief that they could achieve something important if they all worked together. He was also not heavy handed with the boys, often preferring to give them a certain degree of freedom on and off the pitch.

In April 2000, Metsu gave Diouf his national team debut. It didn’t take long before Diouf and some other young players became regulars in the team although Diouf often stood out. His hat-tricks in the 2002 World Cup qualifying games against Algeria and Namibia plus the winner in the crucial encounter against Morocco was vital in helping the team seal qualification for the world cup, the first in their history.

El Hadji Diouf and Ferdinand Coly

Senegal went into the 2002 African Cup of Nations in Mali full of confidence. With young players like the aforementioned Diouf, Henri Camara, Papa Bouba Diop and Salif Diao, in addition to players who were approaching their peak years like Khalilou Fadiga, Tony Sylva and Ferdinand Coly, the squad had all the necessary ingredients to do well. Senegal played a beautiful counter attacking style, often defending resolutely or turning over possession in midfield quickly with fast breaks using Diouf as the team’s “X-factor” in most cases by providing moments of individual brilliance. Senegal met Nigeria again at the 2002 tournament, this time at the semi-final stage; their evident growth was displayed as they came out winners this time with Diouf scoring an extra time winner after Julius Aghahowa had drawn Nigeria level late into normal time.

Although they went on to lose the final – their first ever – to Cameroon on penalties, it was clear to everyone that bothered to take notice that the Senegalese team wasn’t joking around, they meant business. By the time the FIFA World Cup began in South Korea and Japan later in 2002, a lot of people were curious to see what they had to offer on the biggest stage of all.

Grouped along with France, – who were the defending champions and European champions at the time – Denmark and South American heavyweights, Uruguay, Senegal quickly announced themselves to the world with an opening day victory against France. The match ended 1-0, it was a well worked counter attack that was finished off by Papa Bouba Diop, -may his soul rest in peace – the kind of football that we had grown accustomed to in the two years prior to the World Cup. The world sat up to take notice, one of the best teams in the world and frankly speaking, favourites for the tournament, had just been defeated by some minnows from West Africa, Senegal had just defeated her colonial masters.

The next game against Denmark saw the Teranga Lions score a second half goal through Salif Diao after going behind in the first half, it was enough to earn a valuable draw. The result along with other results from the group meant that a win in the last game versus Uruguay could put them top of the group while a draw was enough to seal qualification to the next round. What happened in the first 45 minutes of the third game shocked everyone, Senegal raced to a three-goal lead against the South Americans through a Fadiga penalty and a Bouba Diop brace but their inexperience eventually showed in the second half as they allowed Uruguay back in the game and could only take a share of the points, the game ended 3-3 and the debutants were through to the second round of the tournament.

Senegal faced Sweden in the second round of the tournament, the Swedes had already dispatched Nigeria in the group stage so they at least had an idea of what to expect from the West Africans. Bruno Metsu had to cope with the absence of Fadiga who missed the game after an accumulation of yellow cards. In his place, Henri Camara was brought in. The match against Sweden was Camara’s second start of the tournament and oh boy, he didn’t disappoint. After an early setback which allowed Henrik Larsson to put the Swedes in front from a corner kick, Senegal responded with two beautifully taken goals by Camara, the second one came just before the end of the first half of extra time. Senegal eliminated Sweden on golden goal.

Senegal arrived at the quarter final stage with the whole of Africa supporting them, the chance to see an African team in the semi finals of the the FIFA World Cup was something that every African football fan wanted to experience; the nation standing between Senegal and a place in the history books was Turkey. The Turkish team – who were also looking to get to the semi finals for the first time – had qualified from Group C which had Brazil, China and Costa Rica, they also defeated co-hosts, Japan in the second round but given Senegal’s exploits so far in the tournament, the match up seemed pretty balanced.

The Téranga Lions entertained us with their dance celebrations after every goal

The match – in normal time – had everything except goals, Senegal showed the world that they weren’t there to mess around. El Hadji Diouf had a goal ruled out when he followed up on a Henri Camara shot to tap the ball into the net, Camara was adjudged to be offside. The Turks also went really close to breaking the deadlock when Yildiray Basturk had his headed attempt cleared off the line by Omar Daf, Diouf went close with a freekick and it was basically end to end with both goalkeepers standing firm at both ends of the field. Four minutes after the restart though, Senegal – and indeed the whole of Africa – had their hearts broken, Ilhan Mansiz got on to the end of a lovely cross from Ümit Davala and Tony Sylva had no answer to his well taken one-time half volley. The golden goal that helped Senegal advance from the second round had come back to hurt them.

Senegal were out, African hopes dashed but the joy that they gave the African continent, and perhaps the entire world, during their fairytale run at the 2002 World Cup will always remain in our hearts. With determination, grit, flair, heart and entertainment – who would forget those beautiful goal celebrations – the team embodied the entire essence of African football and would likely go down as one of the best African sides to not win a title.

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