On the morning of 31st May 2002, France were the reigning world champions, the reigning European champions, and were fancied by many to become the first team since Brazil 40 years prior to win back-to-back World Cups.
That evening, they faced minnows Senegal.
This wasn’t the Senegal we’re familiar with today, boasting stars such as Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sadio Mane, winners of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations; this was a Senegal who’d made one AFCON final, and had never even appeared at a World Cup.
For France, even without injured Zinedine Zidane, failing to win this game would’ve been a huge upset. Losing was virtually unthinkable.
A perhaps over-confident France, featuring the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Emanuel Petit, were no match for the Lions.
Knowing motivation wouldn’t be an issue – this wasn’t just Senegal’s first World Cup match, but the very first match of the 2002 World Cup – Bruno Metsu had told his team not to be overly respectful of their opponents, and not be overawed by the occasion. There was no rousing pre-match team talk, with the message being for the players to enjoy themselves.
France, as expected, dominated the ball in the early stages, with Trezeguet fluffing an early half-chance, before striking the post after 22 minutes.
The then-scarcely-known El Hadji Diouf was a constant threat down the wings with his pace, and Senegal had quickly proved they’d be no pushovers.
When Youri Djorkaeff had his pocket picked on the halfway line by Omar Daf, Diouf was released down the left wing.
Leaving Frank Leboeuf for dead, Diouf looked for Papa Bouba Diop, and a mix-up between Fabien Barthez and Emmanuel Petit allowed the grounded Diop to sweep into an empty net.
The goal may have been sloppy but the celebration was superbly choreographed. One of the abiding images of the South Korea/Japan World Cup is the Senegal team all dancing at the corner flag, reminiscent of Roger Milla in 1990, for what would turn out to be the winning goal.
France failed to carve out a single clear-cut opening in the first half, going into the break trailing.
There was a slightly renewed urgency from the world champions in the second half, with a glancing Trezeguet header going wide. Henry then missed Les Bleus’ best chance of the game with a header at the far post only being diverted back across goal.
Djorkaeff then forced a smart save from Tony Sylva with a long-range effort, with the keeper being called into action from a Vieira header
But it was the underdogs who’d go closest to scoring, with Khalilou Fadiga bearing down on Leboeuf before thundering an effort past a beaten Barthez onto the crossbar.
Minutes later, Henry would do the same, with a long-range curling effort, not quite dipping enough to hit the underside of the bar.
In the final minute of the 90, Henry would fire from a tight angle, stinging the palms of Fadiga, who once again stood firm.
The final whistle saw the Senegalese players fall to their knees in a combination of delight and disbelief, knowing they’d made history, and caused one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets, all in the nation’s very first World Cup game.
Match-winner Diop acknowledged that all the pressure was on their opponents, saying: “We had no worries; we just had fun together. We had an amazing team spirit.”
It was a team spirit that carried them to 1-1 and 3-3 draws with Denmark and Uruguay, securing a place in the last 16, where they beat Sweden 2-1 after extra-time, eventually falling to Turkey in the quarter-finals, while France failed to score a single goal, finishing bottom of their group.