Hundreds of millions across the globe tuned in to watch the Opening Match of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. And the question many of them awaited an answer to was not if France would win, but how heavy a defeat Senegal would suffer.
It was, after all, the defending champions and title favourites against the tournament debutants and rank outsiders; a squad made up of men from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Juventus against one with nobody based outside France, Morocco or Senegal; mega-stars such as Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Youri Djorkaeff, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet against a group of little-known players; and a starting XI with 652 caps between them against one in which only two players had appeared in 30 internationals or more.
Yet it took Senegal’s solitary 21-year-old striker no time at all to begin terrorising the mightily experienced French defence - and to show those who had paid minimal attention to his threat just why he was the reigning African Footballer of the Year. Indeed, just eight seconds were on the clock when El Hadji Diouf coaxed Desailly into fouling him before heading the resulting free-kick at Barthez, and just minutes later he skinned the Chelsea centre-back down the flank before masterfully cutting the ball back for Khalilou Fadiga, who forced the France keeper into a save.
Diouf continued to trouble Desailly and his fellow centre-back Frank Leboeuf with his movement, and direct dribbling, but it was the man at the apex of the Les Bleus formation who had the next two chances, with Trezeguet producing a fine block from Lions of Teranga No1 Tony Sylva and then cannoning the ball back off the post.
Diouf immediately reclaimed the stage, and just before the half-hour, Bruno Metsu’s side got their reward for his invention. Salif Diao made a superb tackle on Youri Djorkaeff on the halfway line, and swiftly released Diouf down the left wing. The No11 skipped past Leboeuf as if he wasn’t there, reached the byline, and cut the ball back towards the onrushing Papa Bouba Diop. Petit attempted to intercept the cross, but he only succeeded in diverting the ball against Barthez and into the reach of the outstreched leg of the grounded Diop, who scooped it into the empty net. The marksman ran to the corner flag, placed his jersey on the floor, and danced around it jubilantly with his team-mates.
Diouf continued to run riot throughout the remainder of the half, and won his side multiple free-kicks, but the man with the peroxide-blond hair wasn’t the only threat to the reigning European and world champions. On 64 minutes, Khalilou Fadiga began a move from deep and, when possession was returned to him, employed step-overs to earn himself some space before unleashing a thunderous strike that Barthez did superbly to tip on to his crossbar and over.
The woodwork then denied a delightful Henry curler as Roger Lemerre’s men augmented their pressure. By now, the Europeans’ only answer to Diouf was to bring him down, which earned Senegal much-needed respite from French attacks and allowed them to hold out for one of the greatest shocks in FIFA World Cup history.
It was a result that proved fundamental to Senegal, unthinkably, reaching the Round of 16 – Turkey eventually ended their heroic run in the quarters - and France, unthinkably, falling at the first hurdle. And it was a result mightily indebted to Diouf.
“Nobody believed we could do it, but I knew we could,” said the hero of the hour. “It was a victory not just for all Senegalese people but for all Africans.”