By Eileen Murphy
Senegal: Group A
African upstarts Senegal have the unenviable task of testing the might of World Cup holders France in the opening match of Japan/Korea ’02 in Seoul on May 31.
Yet after upsetting the form book in the qualifiers and emerging from a group that included three former African champions and World Cup participants, the Senegalese may well be up to the task on their debut — daunting as it may be.
It’s been a dizzying two years for Senegalese football as one success after another has thrust the country’s beloved national team into the international spotlight.
Coached by a Bohemian Frenchman with long dark locks that brush his shoulders, the “Lions of Teranga” will be vying to confirm a growing reputation as Africa’s latest World Cup hopes after the ease of their qualification. They were beaten only once in eight matches, against four wins and three draws.
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What has impressed pundits the most about the Senegalese — whose only previous claim to soccer fame was as the birthplace of Arsenal’s coveted French midfielder Patrick Vieira — is their sudden ascendancy to power.
The former French colony, located in Africa’s westernmost region, were an ordinary side on the continent two years when they squeaked into the quarterfinals of the biennial African Nations Cup in Nigeria/Ghana. Then under the tutelage of German technical advisor Peter Schnittger, they gave co-hosts Nigeria a big scare before succumbing 2-1 in the dying minutes. They haven’t looked back since.
In the World Cup qualifiers, Senegal ended up in the inevitable “Group of Death” along with Namibia, four-time African envoys Morocco, two-time representatives Algeria, and Egypt, who made the last of their two trips to the finals in 1990. On the bench, Schnittger made way for Bruno Metsu, who cut an irreverent figure with his long hair. The young Frenchman built on Schnittger’s work to mold a strong, colorful and physically imposing side that lost only one of its eight qualifying games.
As balanced as Metsu’s squad was in the qualifiers, the pick of the lot was a 20-year-old scoring sensation dubbed “Serial Killer” for his clinical finishing. Al-Hadji Diouf was the ace in the Senegalese pack, reeling in eight of the Lions’ 14 goals, including hat tricks against Namibia and Algeria. He also netted the winner in Senegal’s most decisive victory, a 1-0 home decision over Morocco.
“For me, he has been fantastic,” Metsu of the Lens striker, who’s now 21 and a candidate for 2001 African Footballer of the Year.
“Diouf has all the qualities you want in a striker. He’s very quick and he doesn’t hesitate at all in front of goal. When he gets a chance he takes it,” the coach adds.
When not scoring, Diouf is adept at creating opportunities for his fellow strikers. He has able support upfront in the shape of the physically imposing Khalilou Fadiga and Henri Camara, while in defense the dreadlocked Ferdinand Coly is a key reason why Senegal only conceded two goals in eight qualifiers.
Spotted by Metsu at Lens while the coach was on a scouting mission in France, Coly showed an array of both defensive and attacking skills on the road to Japan/Korea. Quick, strong in the air, and an excellent tackler, he is usually assigned to mark the opposing team’s best striker, an assignment that he invariably performs well.
As a team, Senegal plays fast, physical football, which, given their experience with playing in hot, humid environments, should make them a difficult opponent in Group A.
It may be their World Cup debut, but Metsu’s men are unlikely to be found wanting either technically or tactically as almost their entire squad comprises French and Swiss-based professionals.
Senegal have already served warning of sorts to their first-round foes France, Denmark and Uruguay by handily defeating both co-hosts Korea and Japan 2-0 in friendlies last year.
They made a winning start to the 16-team African Nations Cup in Mali last Sunday, downing luckless Egypt — the only side they failed to beat in the World Cup qualifiers — 1-0 on defender Lamine Diatta’s 82nd minute header.
Should they maintain form, the “Lions of Teranga” may raise a few eyebrows in Group A.
(Each week Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark and Uruguay.)