“Bouba Diop is there! Oh, and Bouba Diop is there! And Senegal have scored the first goal of the 2002 World Cup!”
Shrieking in wonder, almost incredulity, the unmistakable timbre of John Motson reflected what many felt at the time. Senegal, in their first ever match at a World Cup, were leading France, world and european champions. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The glory of the previous four years had proven something of a welcome but impermanent salve to the racial tensions that had been festering in France before and since the breakup of its empire. In particular, the images of fellow country-people celebrating arm-in-arm on the Champs-Elysées during the aftermath of their home triumph in 1998 portrayed a nation united, both in spirit and gratitude to a “Rainbow Team” that had shown what is possible when differences are embraced and put towards a common purpose. Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian immigrant parents and raised in the Marseille banlieue, was their talisman.
This was meant to be the platform from which team and country would push on. Much like the reverential projection of Zidane’s face onto the Arc de Triomphe, the apparent solidarity of the moment was a fleeting mirage.
Just 26 days before a prone Papa Bouba Diop prodded Senegal into an unlikely ascendency with half-an-hour of the 2002 World Cup elapsed, the Front National (now Rassemblement National) contested its first ever presidential run-off. Although incumbent President Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen by the biggest landslide in French presidential election history, the presence of the Front National on the final round’s ballot paper should not have been the shock it was considered. Since founding the party three decades earlier, Le Pen had managed to unify and mobilise the far right, gaining regional electoral success and seats in the National Assembly. Preaching xenophobia, stoking fears of immigration and its perceived threat to nationalist ideas of French-ness, the Front National had exposed and exploited fundamental divisions in a state grappling with the consequences of its colonialism.
There are 29 minutes on the clock at the Seoul World Cup Stadium as Omar Daf robs Youri Djorkaeff on the halfway line. The left-back pokes the ball forward into the inside-left channel, where El Hadji Diouf leaves Frank Leboeuf on his backside. Fans behind Fabien Barthez’s goal rise to their feet in anticipation as Diouf, making his way to the byline, shifts the ball to his right foot and slides it to the edge of the six-yard box. Papa Bouba Diop, bursting from deep midfield, crashes onto the scene. The ball ricochets off the covering Emmanuel Petit, then the goalkeeper, and Bouba Diop is there to sweep home. He runs to the corner flag, lays his shirt on the ground and invites his teammates to dance around it in joyous celebration.
This goal is more than just the winning strike for a team making their bow on the world’s stage against illustrious, decorated holders. This goal is catharsis, an act of defiance, the reclamation of a narrative. This goal is a message to the former colonial power.
“Can you imagine? The first time you qualify for the World Cup, you’re gonna play the opening match against the country that colonised your country.” – Senegalese football journalist Aliou Goloko, speaking to FIFA TV.
Senegal had only been fully independent for 42 years when Bouba Diop stunned his opponents and the watching world. Portugal, the Netherlands and England had all held base there, but France had been the majority landowners from the mid-19th century until 1959. As is typical of colonial histories, when human rights were eventually afforded to people native to the region – or originaires – they were belated and tokenistic in practice. The French Second Republic extended the rights of full French citizenship to originaires in 1848, but substantial legal and social barriers prevented them from fully exercising these rights. Full voting rights were only issued in 1916.
The complex, once abusive relationship between the two nations – now sharing the stage on theoretically equal footing – lingered in the makeup of both lineups. All of Senegal’s starting XI plied their trade in France at the time. For many of the team, France had been their home since childhood. They were managed by Bruno Metsu, a son of the Dunkirk arrondissement. Bouba Diop’s direct midfield rival, Patrick Vieira – a player with whom he had earned comparisons for his ability to combine exquisite technique with prodigious athleticism – was born in Dakar, Senegal.
Meanwhile, of France’s stellar first XI, only Leboeuf played for a French club in 2002. There is a distinct possibility that parts of the French public would have felt profound affiliation with those in white and green for their contribution to domestic football and culture, possibly even more than with those in blue, whose stars shone brightly but afar.
Others among the French populace would have felt very differently. Reckoning with an entrenched post-colonial prejudice and entitlement emboldened in the years leading up to the recent election, Senegal’s appearance on the same pitch as France would have been an emblem of lost glory, reduced stature, collapsed empire; Senegal’s victory over France, an insult too far.
In Senegal and beyond however, Bouba Diop’s clincher was galvanising. Aliou Goloko explains;
“I felt proud that day to be Senegalese. I was happy from what happened, the achievement of our players, and it was a kind of African proudness because the whole of Africa was supporting Senegal. It was an amazing moment, an historical moment, and the most important day of Senegalese football history.“
On 29 November 2020, Papa Bouba Diop died in Paris at the age of 42 after a long illness. Part of the beauty of the sport that became his profession is that, once in a while, it affords the opportunity to participate in an iconic, significant moment that transcends the mere act of putting a ball in a net. It bestows its players with the chance to create a legacy in an instant, regardless of talent, regardless of status, regardless of what else they do in their careers. Bouba Diop achieved many things over 17 years as a footballer; his gift in Seoul will live in memory and meaning for a long time.