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A French Twist in Opener

Soccer: Defending champion France is stunned by Senegal, 1-0, in first game of the World Cup.

June 01, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Asia's first World Cup kicked off in sensational fashion Friday night when world champion France crashed to a 1-0 defeat against Senegal, the West African nation and former French colony that was making its World Cup debut.

Referee Ali Bujsaim of the United Arab Emirates seemed to take an inordinately long time to blow the final whistle, but when he eventually did, the French players marched off the field grim-faced while the Senegalese rejoiced as if they had won the 32-nation tournament, not merely opened it.

One of them grabbed a large flag and circled the field at Seoul World Cup Stadium, which earlier had been the scene of a spectacular opening ceremony. The impromptu victory lap drew applause even from the large section of blue-clad French fans among the crowd of 62,561.

Senegal deserved its triumph and, in winning, threw wide open the group that also includes Denmark and Uruguay, who play each other today in Ulsan, South Korea. Almost anyone could advance now.

The game's lone goal was a result of the speed, quickness and opportunism that was a hallmark of the African players throughout the 90 pulsating minutes. Unimpressed by the pedigree of the world champions, they carried the game to them and the upset--historic, some said--was their reward.

The goal came in the 30th minute after a Senegalese player intercepted the ball from Youri Djorkaeff at midfield and sent it out on the left flank to El Hadji Diouf, Africa's 2001 player of the year.

Diouf sprinted around French defender Frank Leboeuf, with whom he battled all night, before cutting the ball back sharply across the face of the goal. Defender Emmanuel Petit tried to clear it but succeeded only in bouncing the ball off the legs of rattled goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

It rebounded kindly for fallen midfielder Papa Bouba Diop, who was on the ground when he hooked the ball into the open net.

"It was great," said Diop. "To score the first goal in the World Cup, I had been dreaming about it before the match. I was really trying."

The goal sparked a unique celebration.

Diop raced to the corner flag, stripped off his jersey, laid it on the ground and then led half a dozen other Senegalese players in a dance around it.

The crowd seemed stunned by the turn of events, but France immediately began to pick up the pace and it seemed only a matter of time before the tying goal would come and the world would be set right again.

It was not to be.

Senegal, with goalkeeper Tony Sylva in fine form and led by the exemplary play of defender Ferdinand Coly, time and again denied the French, whose attacking forays lacked the precision that had taken apart Brazil in the final when France won the World Cup in Paris four years ago.

The reason was obvious. With inspirational playmaker Zinedine Zidane sidelined by a torn thigh muscle, the French lacked a player who could single-handedly grab the game by the scruff of the neck and change its direction.

Thierry Henry tried, but the closest he came to having an impact was when he lofted a shot that bounced off the Senegal crossbar in the 65th minute. Even then, he was merely repeating something Khalilou Fadiga had done a minute earlier when he rattled the French crossbar with a fierce shot of his own.

Roger Lemerre, France's coach, tried to swing the game back in his favor by bringing on first Christophe Dugarry and later Djibril Cisse as second-half substitutes, but neither was able to change matters.

When it was all over, Lemerre conceded that Senegal's defense had won the day.

"There was nothing miraculous about Senegal's win," he said. "They were well organized. They had three or four chances to score and they took one of them. We played poorly individually and collectively. We had three or four chances and didn't take any of them.

"But it's not all over for us. There are two matches to go and we can go through [to the second round] with six points."

Those points will be more difficult to come by now that the Danes and Uruguayans have scented French blood in the water. And Senegal must like its chances after its excellent performance.

"I think that the whole of Africa will be celebrating this result," Diouf said. "I think that if we carry on like that we have a good chance of progressing."

Senegal Coach Bruno Metsu seemed almost as shocked by the result as Lemerre.

"Maybe I am not the best coach in the world, but after tonight I am not the worst," he said. "It's like a dream--not a miracle, though. We are past one step but there are two big mountains to climb. We have to play at this level against Uruguay and Denmark."

Whatever lies ahead, the Lions of Teranga, as the Senegalese team is nicknamed, have written their own page in the World Cup history book. The upset ranks among the biggest in the 72-year history of the tournament.

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