Former Fulham, Portsmouth and Senegal midfielder Papa Bouba Diop sadly passed away at the age of just 42 over the weekend.
His untimely death shocked the football community, having become something a cult figure in mid-2000s Premier League fandom, while his legacy will live on strong thanks to the historic goal he scored in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup.
Rather like most of Senegal’s golden generation, Diop was largely unknown to an international audience prior to that World Cup in the Far East. Most played to a top flight level in France, but few had much international experience prior to 1999.
Senegal began 2002 by reaching the final of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time, while Diop was transferred from Grasshoppers in Switzerland to Lens, joining international colleague El-Hadji Diouf, Ferdinand Coly and Pape Sarr at the strong French side.
Facing France, the reigning world and European champions, to kick off the whole tournament was a daunting task for the first time qualifiers. But that day, Diop and Senegal upstaged a French team packed full of star names, who were surprised by the tempo of the game.
Diouf in particular gave an ageing France defence endless nightmares, with a cross of his leading to Diop’s famous goal on the half hour mark.
The man who would later go on to become known as ‘The Wardrobe’ at Fulham and Portsmouth thanks to his enormous physical frame strode forward from midfield to meet the ball. His first effort ricocheted back off Fabien Barthez, but Diop had enough about him to poke in the rebound.
The celebration is almost as famous as the goal itself, with Diop removing his shirt and placing it by the corner flag, where he was joined by his jubilant teammates dancing around it.
France had no response and Senegal’s momentum from that opening win, which stunned the world when many expected the holders to dish out an annihilation, produced draws against Denmark and Uruguay to become the fifth African nation to reach the knockout rounds.
Diop himself scored twice more in the 3-3 clash with Uruguay. Overall, he outscored Ronaldinho and Michael Owen at that World Cup and was level with Germany talisman Michael Ballack, a remarkable feat for a player usually known for his defensive midfield role.
After two more years with Lens, Diop moved to the Premier League in 2004 when Fulham paid around £6m for his services. He scored his first goal in English football in a drubbing by Chelsea, but his second was almost as memorable as that which he netted against France, for different reasons.
Fulham were trailing Manchester United 1-0 at Craven Cottage when the ball was rolled into Diop’s path 30 yards from goal. Not even taking a touch to set himself and slipping as he struck his first-time effort, the ball rifled into the back of the net to rescue a late draw.
By the end of that debut Premier League season, Diop had six goals to his name. Winning goals in consecutive games against West Brom and Birmingham in January ultimately played a critical part in keeping Fulham out of the relegation zone and in the top flight.
By 2007, Portsmouth wanted Diop. He was part of the Pompey side that won the FA Cup in 2008, while he also briefly played for West Ham and Birmingham in the Championship later on.