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
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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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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