No. 23: Senegal Shock The World (Japan & South Korea, 2002) 

Nowadays it’s traditional for the host nation to play in the World Cup opener, but back in 2002, it was the current holders France who started the first ever World Cup to be played on Asian soil.

The French side were the favorites for the competition, and understandably so. Whilst their talisman Zinedine Zidane was set to miss the group stages with a thigh problem, Roger Lemmere’s team was bristling with big names. Players like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly gave this side a formidable aura as they went in search of their second consecutive World Cup title.

The holders were pitted in a group that looked simple enough alongside Uruguay, Denmark and African minnows Senegal; it was the former who they’d face in the opening game.

The French—who were European champions at the time too—named an XI that was packed with quality and overflowing World Cup experience. The starting line-up had accumulated an enormous 652 international caps between them, and the nexus of the squad had been there and done it in 1998.

By comparison, Senegal named an XI that was unfamiliar, inexperienced and short of any real pedigree. But they were a young, energetic side that were familiar with the French style of play—the vast majority of the African’s squad played their domestic football in the lower reaches of the French game.

In short, the holders were expected to lay down a marker and affirm their pre-tournament tag favorites. What happened instead was somewhat different:

What Happened Next?

After the shock defeat in their opener, France capitulated. They finished bottom of Group A without scoring a goal, meaning they’d endured the worst ever defence of a World Cup crown in the illustrious history of the competition.

Without Zidane—who was rushed back prematurely for the final group game against Denmark—they lacked a guile and a direction. Henry cut a frustrated figure without a regular supply line and he was sent off in France’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay after a terrible tackle.

Senegal went on to enjoy an excellent tournament. Papa Bouba Diop, Salif Diao and El Hadji Diouf impressed throughout the group stages, steering the Senegalese to a 1-1 draw against Denmark and then a remarkable 3-3 draw against Uruguay in which they surrendered a three-goal lead.

The Senegalese met Sweden in the last-16, and their superb run continued when a brace from Henri Camara saw them through to last eight. The dream did come to an end there however, as Turkey scored an extra time winner to send the Africans packing.

Their exploits in Japan & South Korea were the catalyst for a host of the Senegalese players to move on to bigger and better things. Diouf and Diao were snapped up by Liverpool—although it didn’t really work out for either—whilst Diop was signed by Lens and Camara eventually sought out by Wolverhampton Wanderers.

A wonderful run against all the odds, and one that began with that opening day shock against the favorites.

Find out the top 25 most exciting World Cup moments.