Surprising. Refreshing. Fearless. Just some of the words used to describe the exceptional 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan exploits of Senegal, who eventually bowed out in the quarter-finals. The Lions of Teranga have been officially recognised by FIFA as the team to progress the most in 2002. Mainly under the guidance of coach Bruno Metsu, the Senegalese certainly did not do things by half in 2002, gaining worldwide recognition and climbing 38 (27) places in this year's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Nobody, not even Pelé himself, had predicted the success of Senegal. When the draw was made for the group stages of the tournament on 1 December 2001, he claimed, "Senegal are the weakest team in the competition". But the Brazilian great, like many others, had underestimated the men from Africa. Despite only scraping through the qualifying round, they had shown their mettle by coming through a daunting group that included three of African football's giants - Morocco, Egypt and Algeria.
Piece de resistance
Their historic qualification seemed to lift a great weight off the players' shoulders as they continued in great vein in the African Cup of Nations, held in Mali in January 2002. Justifiably proud of their achievements so far, they declared that they were there to win the title. And they so nearly did, with their improvised style of play carrying them all the way to the final, which they only lost on penalties to Cameroon. However, Senegal's piece de resistance was their breathtaking semi-final victory over Nigeria. The team even began to reap their rewards during the African tournament, with the team's lethal marksman El-Hadji Diouf named African Player of the Year 2001. Bruno Metsu was later named best coach in Africa, with the team also honoured as the best in Africa.
Then came the world stage. Placed in Group A alongside defending champions France, few believed in the Lions of Teranga, especially as they would encounter Les Bleus in the opening match! The rest, as they say, is history. In a wonderful match, the French were unable to cope with the speed of Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga, and Senegal's deserved 1-0 victory stunned the football world.
But Metsu's men had to prove that their win was not merely a flash in the pan. Their subsequent draw with Denmark removed any doubts, with Salif Diao rounding off a wonderful team move to score a goal that ranked as one of the best in the whole tournament. In their final group match, Senegal and Uruguay shared the honours in an end-to-end match that finished 3-3. The round of 16 beckoned for the Africans.
In the last 16, Senegal claimed a 2-1 victory over a Sweden team that had topped the infamous Group F also containing Argentina, England and Nigeria. But the Africans' run was to come to an end in extra time of their quarter-final encounter with Turkey, another of the tournament's surprise packages. Senegal's performances were certainly one of the highlights of the tournament.
While the enthusiasm and verve of the Senegalese team is to be applauded, FIFA awards this prize on the basis of statistics and facts. Points awarded over the course of a year are calculated using a set of precise criteria. Although the results count, the calculation also takes into consideration a number of factors, such as the number of goals scored, whether the victory or defeat was home or away, the status of the match (a World Cup victory gains more points than a win in a friendly match), and the overall level of the confederation. Once all these points have been calculated, they are multiplied by the total from the previous season and the team with the highest total takes the trophy.
But, statistics or not, few would argue with the award for most improved team going to Senegal in 2002.