With world football still shaken by the death of one of the most talented sportsmen of all-time, Diego Maradona, at 60, African football was hit with a tragedy of its own, the loss of Papa Bouba Diop at 42 after a prolonged illness.
When the news of the former Senegal international’s passing filtered through on Sunday, tributes immediately poured in for the ex-Fulham midfielder. Indeed, the shock was palpable and the glorification of the late West African by past and present stars, clubs and the sport’s governing body in the immediate aftermath was touching. While players could have several decisive moments throughout their careers, Bouba Diop’s crowning glory, without a doubt, came in Senegal’s 1-0 shock success over France at the 2002 World Cup.
The Teranga Lions’ interesting ascent in the early 2000s already saw them miss out on winning the Africa Cup of Nations after losing to Cameroon in the final months earlier, but they were largely an unknown quantity outside the continent.
Indeed, Les Bleus, even without Zinedine Zidane, was expected to crush the tournament debutants, and for good reason. The presence of a 33-year-old Marcel Desailly at the heart of the defence, Patrick Vieira in midfield and the prolific Thierry Henry up top further strengthened the belief among observers that the opening game was, by and large, a foregone conclusion.
Diop, however, had other ideas. After El Hadji Diouf left Frank Lebouef sprawling on the turf having been released on the left flank, two Senegal stars made darting runs into the box but Papa gambled and took the opportunity presented to him.
There were six French players in the box before Diouf played the ball into the six-yard box, with half of them close to the towering Senegal midfielder but all that didn’t matter. Diop, undaunted, wasn’t to be denied his moment.
In truth, the ball broke kindly for the then-Lens man, who got two bites of the cherry before slotting home from close range on the half-hour mark. While many will put that strike down to luck, others will insist it was his just reward for seizing the day. What do they say about fortune favouring the brave, again?
France had an hour to respond but couldn’t find the equalizer. The star-studded defending champions had been bigged up before kick-off but were instead left wondering how they lost 1-0 to a nation ranked in the bottom three in the tournament before the first whistle.
That goal defined the rest of Diop’s career and definitely competes with Cameroon’s shock 1-0 win over Maradona’s Argentina a decade and a bit earlier for the most-shocking result at the global showpiece ever.
While the majority of observers tend to opt for the Indomitable Lions’ success, who were reduced to nine men against the South Americans, the Central African nation’s history of success as two-time African champions and 1982 participants at the World Cup is often ignored.
Senegal, on the other hand, had never taken part in the showpiece or made an Afcon final in the history of the competition until 2002. They were minnows in every sense of the word but weren’t fazed by that tag to equal Africa’s best showing on the world stage.
Diop scored two more goals at the finals, with a brace in the rip-roaring 3-3 draw with Uruguay, to finish as the Teranga Lions’ top scorer on their maiden appearance at the showpiece. To date, no Senegal player has netted as many in the finals (they later competed in Russia in 2018).
A nomadic club career saw him star in the Premier League with Fulham — where he became a favourite with the club’s supporters — and did his bit to help Portsmouth to success in their 2008 FA Cup win, their first triumph in the competition in 69 years.
For the reasonable success he enjoyed in the 2000s, Bouba Diop left an indelible mark on the sport with that historic goal against France. He announced Senegal to the world in Seoul against the defending champions to earn the Teranga Lions considerable respect following pre-match predictions…and that’s how we all should remember him.
Rest in peace, Wardrobe.