Poor old Pele is forever being reminded of his prediction in 1974 that by 2000, an African team would have won the World Cup. They were bold words, perhaps strategic words given his then pal Joao Havelange was canvassing for FIFA dominance on the back of “votes for Africa”.
In 1974, Zaire showed how much needed to be done to make that happen, and 40 years later, we are still waiting for a credible challenge.
In 1972, Book of Football, in a chapter on football in the equatorial zone, called Africa the place “where the dark stars are”. Africa is not such a mystery to the rest of the world today, but its football is still developing and it does make you wonder when, if ever, they will get themselves into contention for the World Cup.
There have been flickers of life over the decades, but in many ways, it seems that some African nations have gone backwards in their footballing development. Look at Cameroon. Their performance in the 2014 World Cup was pathetic, both in terms of play and in discipline. Not satisfied with taking an industrial dispute into the competition, they produced some rough-house tactics and even fought among themselves. They were a shambles. But 24 years ago, in Italy, they were one of the bright spots in a dire World Cup. Roger Milla and all that.
African nations have always invited stereotyping evidence why they have not been successful. Discipline has often been cited as the reason why they cannot compete with the Europeans or South Americans. They are often badly organised and over-aggressive. Fast, yes, and strong, but lacking subtlety. There are exceptions, of course. Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure have been two of the English Premier’s finest imports. And Samuel Eto’o – Cameroon’s favourite shop steward – has been one of the most feared strikers in European football in recent years.
One of the biggest hurdles for sustained success is the lack of decent national leagues across the African continent. Looking at the five African countries in this year’s World Cup, of the 115 players in the five squads, only 10 play in domestic football. Nigeria has four, Algeria and Cameroon 2 and Ghana and Ivory Coast just one apiece.
African players are snapped up early by European clubs. They are a mercenary bunch, spread right across Europe, plying their trade in all the major leagues. Yet are they that good? The fact is, despite playing in Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga and the English Premier, the African players are not necessarily playing for the top clubs. If you look at the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, only four or five Africans feature in the top clubs’ squads – players like Mikel, Ba and Eto’o at Chelsea and Gabon’s Pierre-Emereich Aubameyang at Borussia Dortmund.
The breakthrough in the World Cup came with Morocco in 1986, who reached the last 16. Since then, at least one country has made it through to the last 16 in the competition. 2014 could be the best yet, although the competition started badly for them. The ageing Ivory Coast side, Ghana and Cameroon have all gone home.
One factor haunts African football and that is consistency. Between 2008 and 2012, Egypt won all three African Cup of Nations, but they failed to qualify for the World Cup during that period. There seems to be some momentum emerging, though. This year’s representatives from the African zone all played in the 2010 finals. But we have seen no sign of Tunisia (since 2006), Senegal (2002) or Morocco (1998).
And the age-old problem of a lack of local coaches remains in Africa. The five qualifiers this year have coaches from Germany, France and Bosnia as well as Nigeria and Ghana. Until local infrastructures are improved, and domestic coaches become a reality, Africa will always struggle to move the needle on the global stage.
One team that was expected to enjoy considerable success was Zambia in 1993. They had a vibrant young side that was tipped to be the best to come of out Africa yet. But disaster struck in April of that year, a plane crash that wiped out a team that had lit-up the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. They were flying to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.
A few months later, I sat among the replacements for that team at a game between Brondby and Lyngby in Denmark. A group of green track-suited young players were regrouping for Zambia’s remaining World Cup qualifiers and the forthcoming African Cup of Nations. They were sombre, quiet and a little sad, as if they were still mourning the loss of a “golden generation”. Zambia have still to qualify for a World Cup, but they surely would have if the crash had not happened. Fate had deprived the continent of a chance to demonstrate it had arrived.
The answer then, to the question, “should they be doing better”, is inconclusive. If you look at the stats, they have made progress, but they are nowhere near Pele’s prediction. And my guess is, they never will be. Nigeria and Algeria, the last survivors from Africa in this year’s World Cup, will win the support of the neutral, though.