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Sunday, 23 June, 2002, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK

Lions prove a point

By James Copnall
in Japan

The Senegalese team that arrived in Korea at the end of May attracted only mild interest from the rest of the world: first time at the World Cup, first team to go back home was most pundits' prediction.

In that context, what the Lions have achieved at this World Cup is little short of extraordinary.

First came the awe-inspiring victory over the World and European champions France.

" We came here small, we left big "
El Hadji Diouf

That result alone would have made this World Cup a resounding success for Senegal: it established them as a force even on the highest reaches of the footballing landscape.

What followed suggested the Senegalese have what it takes to install themselves at the summit of the world game.

Hard-fought draws against Denmark and Uruguay ensured qualification to the second round.

Then came the historic golden goal victory over Sweden that made Senegal only the second African team, after Cameroon in 1990, to reach the World Cup quarter finals.

That the Senegalese looked only a shadow of their former selves in losing to Turkey should take little away from an astounding World Cup campaign.

Africa can be proud of a team that can now call itself one of the best eight sides in the world.

"We came here small, we left big," said El Hadji Diouf, Africa's Player of the Year.

"To get here was already so great," said right back Ferdinand Coly.

So what was the secret formula? First of all, the team seemed to feel no pressure and never appeared over-awed by their opposition.

There was also a fair share of talent: in the likes of Bouba Diop, El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga, Senegal had some of the tournament's best players.

Above all, the Lions were successful because Bruno Metsu and his staff were able to foster an atmosphere in which the whole squad pulled in the same direction, both on and off the pitch.

But where do the Lions go from here?

The players are likely to improve still further - Diouf and Salif Diao are heading to Liverpool and many more are expected to sign big-money deals with top European outfits in the weeks to come.

However Metsu is likely to leave his adopted country for fresh - and better paid - challenges elsewhere.

If the Frenchman does go, it will prove difficult for his successor to establish the same unifying bond with the team.

The Lions will no doubt struggle to motivate themselves for their upcoming challenges: an African Nations' Cup qualifying group of Sao Tome e Principe, Gambia and Lesotho is a world away from Senegal's World Cup adventure.

As one player said to me in private, "I wouldn't be surprised if many of the players retired from international football after this.

"How can we top what we have achieved here?"

That is exactly the challenge now facing the Lions.

Gloomy though it all sounds, Africa should not despair: the Lions have made a habit of passing every test that comes their way with flying colours.

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