Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Suddenly Senegal

    On April 9, 2000, the day the African qualifiers began, exactly three people in the world predicted that Senegal would eventually make it to the quarterfinals. (I can't disclose their names; they're currently at a top secret laboratory somewhere beneath the Andes, working on a mathematical formula that will predict the weather, stock prices, and exactly when and where the world's 85 billion missing socks will reappear.) The rest of us knew only that Senegal was fielding a team, and left it at that.

    Even when Senegal surprised everyone by making it to Korea/Japan, and followed it up with a second-place finish at the Cup of Nations in Mali, you couldn't find too many people betting on a long run at the tournament. All of this website's columnists picked them for last in their group, and in a column on African soccer, I wrote brilliantly that they had the talent to advance, but probably wouldn't, because they were just happy to be at the World Cup.

    It's evident by now that just about everyone in the world was wrong about Senegal (and I have no clue where my missing socks are, either), so now it's time to look at just why they are where they are. Senegal are in the quarterfinals because of:

1. Tactical Flexibility

    Coming into the tournament, Bruno Metsu was known as a fine motivator, but an indifferent tactician. He stuck with a basic 4-4-2 in Mali, and there was no indication he'd try anything different in Asia. But in the first game he went to a tight 4-5-1, including the brilliant move of captain Aliou Cisse from central defense to defensive midfield. This helped provide cover for a weak back line, and provided a disciplined wall that held off France for 90 minutes. El Hadji Diouf went it alone up front, and set up the goal that provided the historic upset.

    But that was just the beginning. Metsu started with the 4-5-1 against Denmark, but down 0-1 at halftime he went crazy. Instead of working gradually toward attacking mode, he inserted two speedy forwards, Henri and Souleymane Camara, and let the team rip. They practically ran the Danes back to Copenhagen. The 1-1 draw was, if anything, a meager reward for their brilliant display.

    Then came the game against Uruguay, where Senegal needed only a draw. Understanding that Uruguay would have to attack, he skipped the 4-5-1 and went to a more aggressive counterattacking 4-4-2, with Henri Camara joining Diouf up front. By halftime it was 3-0, and although two of the goals probably shouldn't have counted, there was no doubt that Senegal were the better side. In the second half he made his one mistake of the tournament, putting the Lions into a deep defensive bunker. The Uruguayans stormed the fortress, scored 3 times, and nearly pulled off the comeback.

    Against Sweden in the quarterfinals, Metsu faced a personnel problem. His best defensive midfielder, Salif Diao, and his best attacking midfielder, Khalilou Fadiga, were missing due to suspension. So he surprised everyone by going with a 4-3-3, with target man Pape Thiaw as centerforward and Diouf and Camara at left and right wing respectively. The Swedes are a slowish team, and play 4-4-2, and Metsu calculated that with enough tracking back by the forwards, his 3-man midfield could hold Sweden's 4. It worked. The real dividend was Camara; as Diouf's lone partner he had been inconsistent, but with a genuine centerforward to play off of, he ran wild. Thiaw had an indifferent game, but in extra time he put Camara through for the golden goal.

    Now it's Turkey, and time for Metsu to earn his salary again. Fadiga and Diao are back, and he's got three different formations to choose from. The 4-3-3 again seems unlikely; the Turks are quick and play 5 men in midfield, so a 3-man midfield would likely be overrun. The 4-5-1 again is a possibility, but the team has shown so much attacking power, and grown so much in confidence, that it would probably be a waste of their abilities. And after Camara's brilliant game against Sweden, it would be hard to leave him out. So let's guess at a 4-4-2 with Camara and Diouf up front, and Cisse, Diao, Bouba Diop, and Fadiga in midfield.

    This may all seem like a numbers game; after all, when they get out on the field it's 11 against 11, best team wins. But one of the reasons Cameroon is going home and Senegal is staying is tactical flexibility. Cameroon pretty much stuck with one basic approach in all three games; it had worked so well in Mali, why not here? So they were unable to adjust to the different demands of different games. Senegal has been changing on the fly, and the results speak for themselves.

2. Talent

    Not exactly genius here; obviously you need talent to win. But I think most people underestimated Senegal's overall talent. I know I did. Having watched them at the Nations Cup, and against France as well, I saw a team of reasonable but not exceptional talent (Diouf excepted, of course), well-organized and well-drilled.

    But they've shown themselves to be brilliant on attack and resourceful in defense. Salif Diao and Bouba Diop, who looked like fine defensive midfielders and no more, have been nothing short of phenomenal on the counterattack. Both have shown daring, vision, and superb finishing. Henri Camara, who had been erratic for months, showed all his marvelous skill against Sweden. Ferdinand Coly was a known strength at right back, but the rest of the back line has performed admirably. Special recognition goes to centerback Lamine Diatta, who had been criticized as slow of foot and reaction. He's stood up strong, played excellent positional football, and marked with precision.

    Then of course there are Diouf and Fadiga, the acknowledged stars of the team. Diouf has been inconsistent, and far too willing to hit the deck to draw a whistle, but he shows his quality in every move he makes. Fadiga is quieter, but has that deadly left foot. One of the great moments of the tournament was Senegal's goal against Denmark: a beautiful counterattacking sequence found Fadiga advancing with the ball on the left side, and he slipped it perfectly to Diao for the finish.

3. Cohesion

    This is the intangible, the great strength of Senegal since their first qualifier. Tactics and talent can only take you so far; you have to be able to play as a team. No one does that better than Senegal. Early in his stewardship Metsu made it clear that each and every player would have a chance to express themselves on and off the field; paradoxically, the extra room for the individual has produced a team of rare togetherness.

    Diouf is probably the best example here. Sometimes it looks as if he's off in a world by himself, improvising without any sense of what'll happen next. But he is emphatically not a selfish player. He's always looking for his teammates, and although he was by far the team's top scorer in the qualifiers, he's sometimes almost too willing to give the ball to someone else in the penalty area. Senegal has 7 goals; he has none.

    Another reason the team is so unified is that they understand their position in Senegal today. When the team began winning, they became the most important representatives of their country, the primary hope of a relatively poor and obscure nation. From the beginning they've dedicated their victories to the people of Senegal, and the people have responded by making them their chief citizens. That sort of relationship is unobtainable among top teams like France, Brazil, or Italy; everyone's on their own there, responsible to themselves and the team, but not the country. In Senegal, it's one people, one team, 10 million embodied in 23.

    So those are the guys they call the Lions of the Teranga. Along with South Korea, they're the most enjoyable revelation of the tournament. Will tactical flexibility, talent, and cohesion get them past Turkey? Don't ask me; I had Cameroon in the semifinals and Italy winning it all. But a Senegal win would no longer be a shock. This is a team of real quality, and if their sudden emergence caught us all by surprise, it's nice to find out that no matter how much we think we know, there's always more football excellence to discover.



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