BY CRAIG STEPHEN

Once again Senegal has lit up a World Cup by slaying the pre-match favourites.

The Lions of Teranga’s 2-1 dismissal of seeded Poland in Group H was the first African victory of the tournament after Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia all tasted defeat.

Naturally, it has evoked memories of the Lions’ previous, famous run in the World Cup in 2002, when they beat reigning champions France and followed it up with victory over Sweden in the knockout round. After the win over Poland in Moscow, the team even performed a dance as the famed group of 2002 also did.

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Colombia and Japan might offer tougher opposition, but the Senegalese are in a strong position to create their own destiny by progressing from what isn’t the strongest group of the eight.

What makes this all the more impressive is that international football is a relatively new phenomenon in the West African country, beginning only after independence from France in 1960. Until the turn of the century Senegal failed to make an impact in World Cup qualifying – winning just two out of 11 games between 1969 and 1989. But the nation enjoyed its forays in the African Cup of Nations, qualifying several times, reaching the semi-finals in 1990 and the quarter-finals on the next two occasions.

Hammer of the French

Then came 2002. In a massive upset in Seoul, a French team containing Barthez, Thuram, Henry, Petit, Desailly, Viera et al, slumped to a 1-0 defeat to a team that only committed fans of middling and lowly French sides may have been aware of. A 1-1 draw with Denmark and a 3-3 stalemate against Uruguay (after leading 3-0 at half-time) ensured an unlikely appearance in the last 16 where they beat fancied Sweden 2-1, after Henrik Larsson had put the Scandinavians ahead on 11 minutes. However, their gallant run came to an end in Osaka, beaten by a single extra time goal against Turkey.

The victory over the French remains the defining point for the nation. Pupil beating teacher. French is an official language in Senegal, but most of the players had grown up in the former imperial heartland, and all but two were playing their football there. Meanwhile, the coach was a Frenchman, Bruno Metsu. How could they fear players they knew so well?

Metsu planned a well-worked counter-attacking method to subdue Les Blues. According to Salif Diao, they had no Plan B because they were so certain their tactics would work. After half an hour, El Hadj Diouf – before he would disgrace himself at Liverpool and Rangers – skipped past Franck Lebouef and crossed for Papa Bouba Diop for the solitary goal.

The defensiveness they used to such good effect against France desserted them against the South Americans. Perhaps Diouf shouldn’t have showboated just before the interval. A suspended Diao was missing and the midfield seemed to lack coherence without his influence.

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The team was having fun, there was a relaxed atmosphere in the camp and journalists had open access to the players. That all stopped when the nation’s president Abdoulaye Wade ordered Metsu’s easy-going environment to be tightened up before the quarter-final against Turkey.

Cooped up in their room, becoming restless, the players could only think about the game for two days, which might focus the minds of some players, but didn’t for the Lions.

“I remember that 48 hours, we only saw each other at lunchtime 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,” says Diao.

While the world may have been surprised by Senegal’s remarkable run, there was already evidence of their qualities at the 2002 African Cup of Nations where they were only denied the title on penalties.

After topping a group that included regular continental champions Egypt, Tunisia and Zambia, Senegal overcame the Democratic Republic of Congo 2-0 then Nigeria 2-1 after extra time, to set up a final with Cameroon in Bamako. After a goalless 120 minutes Cameroon took the trophy 3-2 on penalties.

After the Cup, Diouf landed a multi-million deal with Liverpool and Diao ended up a regular at Stoke City, but most of the other squad failed to live up to their potential. Alassane N’Dour, the youngest member of the squad, for example, only played a bit part at teams like Walsall. Metsu died of cancer this year and was given a state burial in Senegal.

Fast forward to Russia 2018

Senegal had a relatively easy passage to Russia, beginning with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Madagascar in round two. Then, in a group featuring South Africa, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso, the Lions emerged the front-runners with four wins and two draws. Neverless they did not go unbeaten, losing 2-1 to South Africa in November 2016. But FIFA annulled the result and ordered a rematch after finding referee Joseph Lamptey unlawfully influenced the match after issuing a penalty for handball against Senegal. After the decision was upheld by the FIFA Appeal Committee and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the tie was replayed a year later, with Senegal winning 2-0. Would Senegal have progressed had the original result stood? On paper yes as even losing that match they would have been two points ahead of Burkina Faso but the impact on Bafana Bafana could have been catastrophic.

The current squad features the next generation of stars, foremost among them being Liverpool’s Sadio Mane who has been lighting up the Premier League with his goals and pacey displays.

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Centre-half Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the stars of Napoli’s excellent Serie A campaign.

And 22-year-old Keita Balde has had an impressive career already, having come through Barcelona’s academy before successful spells at Lazio and now Monaco, which forked out £30million for him.

Unlike the 2002 vintage, the 23-man squad in Russia plays in various countries from Turkey to England, and the Midlands seems an unlikely destination for the Lions with Wolverhampton Wanderers (Alfred Ndiaye), Stoke City (Badou Ndiaye and Mame Biram Diouf), Birmingham City (Cheikh Ndoye) being home to so many.

FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Porkysprimecuts

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