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2002 WORLD CUP

World Cup Runneth Over for Underdog Senegal's Fans

Sports: Africans around the globe celebrate the team's upset of France, reigning champion and former colonial overseer of the tiny nation.

June 01, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ and DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The French, as usual, were prepared to be gracious in victory, but a funny thing happened on the way to magnanimity. The reigning World Cup soccer champion France on Friday confidently opened the 2002 tournament against lightly regarded Senegal, and shocked the soccer world by losing 1 to 0.

The startling victory by a former colony over its old master in the first game of the 2002 World Cup added still more suspense to what was already a highly anticipated tournament, the first ever played in Asia.

From Algeria to South Africa, Africans celebrated the win by the Senegalese team, nicknamed the Lions of Teranga. Many described it as a victory against the vestiges of colonialism.

"The Lions roared today," said William Kirima, a soccer fan in Nairobi. "This is a huge win for African football and all African people."

Even in France, the big upset set off celebrations. In Marseille, immigrant Senegalese danced in the streets, singing, banging drums and standing on cars.

Fans worldwide gathered at whatever odd hour the Seoul location dictated--4:30 a.m. in California--with little expectation that the first match would be much more than an appetizer for the monthlong feast of soccer to come.

France was a pre-tournament favorite to repeat its 1998 triumph and Senegal, a former French colony, was, in the diplomatic language of one BBC commentator, "unfancied" to do much other than show up. This was Senegal's first time qualifying for the World Cup and it was, some forecasters said, only the third-best team from Africa. Just being there was supposed to be the little West African nation's reward.

Their response to the matchup underscored differing moods in the two nations: The Senegalese president declared a national holiday as the French complained about the inconvenience of having to open their World Cup defense at the same time as the French Open tennis tournament.

Schools were closed across Senegal to allow teachers and students to watch the match. In Dakar, the capital, many shops were dark as businesses closed or staggered their opening hours to allow employees to do the same. Hundreds of Senegalese, most of whom don't own televisions, gathered at the national theater to watch.

At a French restaurant in Beverly Hills, one of a few area bars and restaurants that opened to accommodate die-hard fans, wine importer Bruno Laclotte heaped paternal compliments on Senegal, but was calculating how much a French victory would boost sales.

"The Senegalese are very physical and have a lot of ambition, but they don't have the technique that the French have," Laclotte said.

Technique or not, what the Senegal team had after the game was one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. The win set off celebrations across the globe.

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade, who was almost alone in predicting the victory, said his players had already fulfilled their mission. "After beating France, the world champions, the Lions can come back home," he said. "All the same, I want to ask them to stay and defend" the honor of Africa.

Before the game was half through, children ran outside to celebrate the Senegal goal. And after that goal held up for the victory, thousands of fans poured into the streets, dancing, waving flags and chanting, "We're going to eat chicken tonight!"--a reference to the French team's cockerel emblem.

Some fans said the win marked the greatest day not merely in Senegalese sport, but in Senegalese history--greater even than Independence Day in 1960, when the country shed three centuries of French rule.

Still, it's hard to tell these days exactly what it means to be any particular nationality.

Over the last decade, world athletics have become a ferocious free market, with teams scouring the globe for athletes and the best athletes moving to wherever the most money lures them. Some major league baseball teams, for example, have had players from more than half a dozen countries. In soccer, professional teams in Europe routinely employ players from Africa and South America.

More than half the members of the French team are of African or West Indian origin. A third of the French team, including its best player, are of Algerian descent. One is Senegalese. There also is a Basque, an Armenian and an Arab.

Many of the Senegalese team players have lived in France for years. Almost all them play on teams in the top league in France, while most of the members of the French national team--the French, or the Algerians, or the French Algerians, or whatever they ought to be called--play professional soccer elsewhere in Europe.

The French--that is, the French who weren't cheering for Senegal--were philosophical in defeat.

Francois Tomasini, a middle school teacher in the southwestern French town of Hendaye, said the French team was not done for the tournament. He and many other French fans noted that the team was missing its best player, injured midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who is expected to return to play before the tournament ends.

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