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Remembering when Senegal shocked France at the 2002 World Cup

Robbie Copeland
Tony Sylva was a little bit pleased when Senegal shocked France
Tony Sylva was a little bit pleased when Senegal shocked France / Simon M Bruty/Getty Images

The World Cup is the stage where true miracles happen. It's an escape from the financially dominated slog of club football, where everything is earned on merit, and teams are forced to work with what they have.

It's the closest thing the sport has left to a genuine level playing field, and it should be celebrated from the rooftops with the same fervour and enthusiasm that Florentino Perez and his sleazy band of millionaires harbour towards the iniquitous Super League.

You can keep your £1bn TV deal, your 18-team groups and your 255 games a season. The real magic happens when a team featuring El Hadj Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop can rock up in South Korea and send the world champions home for their dinner.

The watching public expected France to show up and run over Senegal in the first game of the 2002 World Cup.

Even without the suspended Zinedine Zidane, Roger Lemerre's team boasted an embarrassment of talent; Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry were among those returning after their triumphant 1998 campaign, and they were tipped to cruise through Group A.

They were facing a Senegal side who had never even been to a World Cup and whose best player is best remembered for spitting at people while playing for Liverpool.

This was El-Hadj Diouf before controversy consumed his career, though, and at 21, he appeared to have the world at his feet. He terrorised Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, and took full advantage of the latter's ageing legs to lay on the opening goal for Diop.

It was becoming clear fairly early on that this was not the France team that had won the tournament four years earlier, as they were virtually unable to break down the African side who were expected to struggle to even take a point from a tricky looking group.

As it happened, Senegal didn't even lose a game until the quarter-finals. Their stunning victory over France set the scene for Senegalese football's finest hour; they went on to draw with Denmark, and had Uruguay on the ropes with a stunning three-goal salvo before the South Americans fought back from the dead to earn a draw.

Their five points saw them finish second in Group A, however, and the dream continued when a Henri Camara double sealed an extra-time victory over Sweden in the last 16.

The tournament's fairytale was ended by Turkey in the quarters, and though it would be 2018 before Senegal returned to the World Cup, their 2002 campaign is fondly remembered as one of the finest ever showings from an African team on the big stage.

As for France? Well...

Youri Djorkaeff, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Frank Leboeuf
France went out without a whimper / KIM JAE-HWAN/Getty Images

They continued the trend of defending champions struggling, and they themselves would have to wait until 2018 before bucking the trend. They were dismal, and didn't even score a goal in any of their three matches as they left the tournament with a single point.

Diop's iconic celebration summed up the madness perfectly. It got the tournament off to a flying start, and symbolised the character and charm that keeps us coming back for more.

It also showed us just why football has a responsibility to protect and preserve the fairness and integrity that leads to moments like these.

Because football, without the possibility of Senegal sauntering up and punching France square in the face, isn't worth watching.