El-Hadji Diouf struggled to construct on his early-career success however, for one match in opposition to the world champions in Seoul, he was unplayable.
Essentially the most surprising lead to World Cup historical past wouldn’t have been attainable with out El-Hadji Diouf.
Lately, the Senegal legend may be maligned – invariably – as a Liverpool flop, a shameless attention-seeker or, as Neil Warnock as soon as opined, a “sewer rat”.
Nevertheless, as soon as upon a time, the dazzling wideman appeared to have the world at his ft.
Senegal’s 1-0 victory over France within the opening match of the South Korea-Japan 2002 was scarcely plausible for a number of causes.
The Teranga Lions had been making their debut within the event, and had treasured little footballing heritage or standing past Africa. Even on their very own continent, they’d by no means earlier than reached the Nations Cup last.
Forward of Senegal’s opening match in opposition to France, talking within the ITV studio, England nice Paul Gascoigne claimed he had “by no means heard of” the nation.
“It’s in Africa, Paul,” Des Lynam dryly replied. “At all times has been.”
But by the tip of their World Cup opener, everybody knew precisely who Senegal had been – Diouf made positive of that.
Not solely had been the Lions making their event debut, however they had been additionally – on paper – a reasonably unremarkable facet.
Aside from the 2 reserve goalkeepers, all the gamers plied their commerce in France, and lots of of them had been within the midst of journeymen careers.
Even their head coach, the late Bruno Metsu, had a patchy document in administration, having lasted lower than eight months answerable for Lille, and solely slightly longer at Valenciennes earlier than embarking on an African sojourn, initially with Guinea.
Within the different nook, was the mighty France, a squad dripping with expertise and with layers upon layers of the type of expertise and success that Senegal couldn’t start to match.
Les Bleus entered the 2002 World Cup as scorching favourites, having clinched their maiden World Cup title on dwelling soil 4 years earlier, after which defeated Italy within the Euro 2000 last to assert high continental honours as effectively.
Within the intervening years, Thierry Henry had matured into one of many world’s most interesting ahead, Zinedine Zidane was on the peak of his powers, and Arsenal pair Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit solid a world-class engine room.
Nevertheless, beneath the gleaming veneer, this was a France group with a number of deep-lying considerations, a number of of which had been exploited mercilessly by Diouf and Senegal.
The lack of the excellent Robert Pires to damage denied Les Bleus a key offensive weapon, whereas Zidane was additionally dominated out of the opener in Seoul after struggling a thigh tear in a pre-tournament pleasant.
Then there was the defence, which, whereas filled with legends of the sport, had begun to point out its age.
Centre-back pairing Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf could have seen off Ronaldo and Brazil to win the World Cup in Paris, however by 2002, they’d a mixed age of 67, and there was a real concern they’d wrestle in opposition to Senegal’s sprightly forwards.
‘Battle’ proved to be an understatement.
Regardless of the context and the event, the Lions appeared largely unfazed by the problem forward of them, fortified by the combating spirit and unity that Metsu had cultivated in the course of the qualifying marketing campaign and Nations Cup earlier that 12 months.
Nonetheless, Diouf was aware of the size of the conflict.
“If we are able to get a lead to that sport,” he mentioned, “what occurs in the remainder of the matches gained’t actually be as essential.”
Through the early exchanges, it was clear that Senegal had been to not be intimidated.
Because the rain made a glistening pitch even slippier, present Lions head coach Aliou Cisse clattered into Henry, whereas Diouf took solely 5 minutes to isolate Desailly in a large space, bypass him simply, earlier than crossing for Khalilou Fadiga to fireplace at Fabien Barthez.
It was a window into France’s downfall, as Les Bleus visibly panicked every time Diouf took possession and had little response to his directness.
Simply over 10 minutes into the competition, he drew a foul from Leboeuf, and moments later, appeared to have damaged in behind, solely to be flagged for offside.
France had probabilities of their very own, with David Trezeguet lacking two first rate alternatives in fast succession, however the champions had been unsettled, and Diouf once more humbled Desailly earlier than misjudging the offside line when the ball was fed again by means of to him.
Lower than half an hour in, there could be no escape for France’s ageing defence, as Diouf once more caught out Leboeuf earlier than crossing dangerously.
Petit and Barthez – who was actually fighting the moist circumstances – made a multitude of the tried clearance, and Papa Bouba Diop slid in to the touch dwelling probably the most well-known objective in Senegal’s soccer historical past.
Diop’s winner, and his iconic celebration, grew to become the defining pictures of that success – and even Senegal’s subsequent run to the quarters – however the Lions’ place in historical past owed a lot to Diouf’s twinkle toes and his lightning tempo, stopping France from settling and constantly probing that statuesque backline.
It’s unlucky that Diouf’s failure to recreate his explosive World Cup affect at Liverpool and his litany of controversies have overshadowed his legacy, at the very least past Africa.
The ‘Serial Killer’, as he was nicknamed, gained back-to-back African Footballer of the 12 months awards – solely the second participant in historical past after Abedi Pele to attain this feat – placing him in elite firm alongside Samuel Eto’o, Mohamed Salah, Yaya Toure and Sadio Mane.
Within the season earlier than South Korea-Japan, he was a part of a Lens facet that completed runners-up in Ligue 1 to Lyon, with the attacker scoring 10 targets in 26 outings, and would go on to make the World Cup Staff of the Event after additional massive contributions en path to the quarter-finals.
Regardless of producing controversy for spitting at followers of West Ham United, Celtic and Middlesbrough, in addition to Portsmouth captain Arjen de Zeeuw, it’s to Diouf’s credit score that he did knuckle down and win over managers such because the demanding Sam Allardyce and even Warnock, who would later rebrand the ahead a “matador” after signing him for Leeds United.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t fairly shake the dangerous boy picture, which, over the past decade of his profession, caught to him extra tightly than the recollections of that summer time in 2002.
Nonetheless, within the fullness of time, Diouf’s popularity has come full circle, and he’s now perceived as one of many elder statesmen and true dwelling legends of the African sport.
For his contribution to the World Cup’s best ever giant-killing, he’ll at all times be remembered.
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