Senegal-France: The Greatest Football Upset of All Time

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Senegal-France: The Greatest Football Upset of All Time

France in April of 1998 were the 25th-ranked nation in world football and had not been a world power for some time. 

While they were the host nation, few gave them any hope of winning their maiden World Championship title. 

It was their first appearance at the Finals in 12 years.

In the group stage they appeared strong, beating South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Denmark, scoring a 9-1 goal aggregate. 

Progressing to the knockout stages, they were impressive beating Paraguay 1-0. They then beat heavyweights Italy 4-3 on penalties before winning against Croatia 2-1 to progress to their first-ever World Cup Final.

They encountered Brazil, heavily favoured to add to their bevy of World Cups.  However, the Brazilians appeared almost to be sleeping throughout the game, and France stunned the soccer world to become the seventh nation to win the most coveted trophy on the planet beating the samba boys 3-0.

They rocketed up the rankings, becoming the second-ranked nation in the world. They then embarked on a ruthless championship reign, losing only six times between 1998 and 2002.

The 2002 World Cup, then, began with the defending champions looking imposing and a real threat to win back-to-back crowns. They came up against Senegal, a nation ranked over 40 places below them.

The French, coming in to the game with a 4-4-2 formation, boasted a line-up full of veterans, with an average age of 29. They had an incredible 652 international caps in their line-up, with their players coming from the finest clubs in Europe—three from Arsenal, two from Chelsea and Juventus.  Marcel Desailly, Patrick Viera, Fabien Barthez. This was every bit a World Champion team.

Senegal, with a 4-5-1 formation, had only two players boasting more than 30 caps, with no player over 28. They came mostly from French clubs, none of title-winning vintage.

French coach Roger Lemerre had signalled that it was a danger game for the champions, but at the same time impressed that Senegal were essentially a French junior side, with all of their players plying their trade in the French leagues.

That was, until Senegal came out all guns blazing—with El Hadji Diouf mercilessly attacking the flanks of the French. The African footballer of the year targeted Frank Leboeuf, who had been pinpointed as the possible weakness in the champion’s armour.

Diouf, playing as the lone striker, took on Lebouef deep into the first half of the game, and powered through the French midfield to pass to his Lens team-mate, Papa Bouba Diop.

The Senegal midfielder got a decisive touch while Emmanuel Petit and Fabien Barthez hesitated—and the young Senegal player scored, creating history by scoring the first goal of the World Cup, and leaving the French reeling.

The defending champions looked somewhat lethargic—especially missing the presence of their top player, Zinedine Zidane. The Senegal players repeatedly harassed the French, forcing them into predictable patterns of play.

The French came back into the game, dominating possession, but Senegal captain Aliou Cisse was calm at the back, and while the French had their chances, they could not score. They peppered the Senegal defences late into the second half, but they had become desperate, while the Senegal team looked confident knowing they had the champions' measure.

When the final whistle blew, the world had just witnessed one of the great upsets of footballing history. Senegal would go on to draw with the Danish team, and post an incredible 3-0 lead over previous champions Uruguay before they fought back to draw. They then defeated Sweden in the round of 16, before narrowly losing to Turkey, who themselves would finish third in the championship.

France, would fail to score a single goal, and would not win a single game, being eliminated in the group stages. Their confidence had been destroyed by Senegal. This would go down in annals as one of the great chapters in African football, rivalling Cameroon's defeat of Argentina in the 1990 Cup. 

It would the darkest day in French soccer history—but ultimately provided arguably the best soccer game one could ever hope to see.

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