When will it be time for Africa in a World Cup?

THERE ARE five African countries in this year’s World Cup, but nobody expects any of them to seriously challenge for the most sought-after trophy in football. Africa remains an also-ran on the global stage and, despite Pelé’s prediction that a World Cup winner will come from the continent by 2000, it simply hasn’t happened, and frankly, is unlikely to occur any time soon.

Progress has certainly been made, although it could be argued it might have plateaued. Africa produces lots of very talented players, but then so does the rest of the world. The athleticism and strength of African players adds something unique to almost every team, but there’s rarely been a well-rounded and consistent national team to go head-to-head with the finest sides from Europe and South America.

African national teams are no longer an unknown quantity – of the five squads representing CAF at this World Cup, only 15 players ply their trade in their domestic competitions. The first Africans to make an impact were Cameroon in 1990, largely because nobody knew too much about them. Today, African footballers can be found in all corners of Europe, so the global football audience is well acquainted with exports from Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria, among others. Furthermore, in Europe’s top five leagues, there are almost 300 African players spread across 98 clubs. France, because of historic links and language, is the biggest importer of African talent, with 120 players in the 20 Ligue 1 squads. Interestingly, while Ajaccio, Angers and Auxerre have over 10 African players, the all-conquering Paris Saint-Germain have just one in their first team squad.

World Cup finals appearances

 First appearedAppearances
Ivory Coast20063
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When African nations started to gain more places in the World Cup finals, one criticism was the lack of technical professionals being developed within the countries themselves. The CAF members invariably hired what could be seen as a foreign legion of coaches from places like Belgium, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslav states. In 2022, the five African sides are all managed by citizens of their own country, a genuine landmark in the game’s evolution. This may yield some very positive results as one of the drawbacks of constantly hiring foreign managers was their lack of affinity with African culture and lifestyle.

Only nine times have African countries reached the last 16 of the World Cup, with three going on to play in the quarter-finals. In 2018, not a single team got out of the group stage and only three victories were recorded in 15 games. This did cause some concern in CAF circles and if there is a similar outcome this year, questions will surely be asked about the momentum behind Africa’s bid to compete with Europe and South America, not to mention Asia.

Needless to say, two African nations have never met in the finals, but that day will surely come. The first team to make the last eight was Cameroon in 1990, a robust side that might have even gone further if they had been more controlled. They were beaten by a rather fortunate England, who had to rely on two penalties to overcome The Indomitable Lions by 3-2. Senegal emulated Cameroon in 2002 and were desperately unlucky to lose to a “sudden death” goal against Turkey in extra time. In 2010, Ghana lost a penalty shoot-out to Uruguay in a controversial game that saw Luis Suárez handballed a goalbound effort that could have given the Africans victory. These narrow defeats suggested that, gradually, Africans were getting closer to becoming more competitive, but 2022 suggests they will still fall short.

Within Africa itself, the game is very competitive and the last seven Africa Cup of Nations has seen seven different winners, but qualification for the World Cup has often been inconsistent. This is partly due to the limited number of slots available to CAF – five – which means qualifying from a confederation with 54 members can be a slippery process. Africa also has to deal with the challenges of driving development in a continent that includes some of the poorest countries in the world. African football also has issues around corruption and infrastructure, both of which hamper momentum and create arguments around financial rewards for players.

Egypt, for example, have been the Cup of Nations most successful country, but they have participated in the World Cup only three times. Nigeria have been one of the regulars but didn’t make it in 2022, while Algeria, winners of the Cup of Nations in 2019, are also missing this time. Ghana, a big producer of talent, have been in four of the last five World Cups, but haven’t won the African competition since 1982.

Sadly, some of the best African players are not at this World Cup; Egypt didn’t qualify, so Mohamed Salah of Liverpool is absent, while Senegal’s star striker, Sadio Mané, now playing for Bayern Munich, is injured. These two players have been among the most coveted forwards in recent years, although both are now over 30. Since the 1990s, Africa has produced some outstanding individuals, including Michael Essien (Ghana), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon) and Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast), all of whom had a major influence on their home nations. Clubs in Europe consider Africa still has a rich seam of talent and have either set-up academies or partnerships with local soccer schools. Scouts proliferate the region, some less than genuine in their approach.

In Qatar, results have been very mixed for Africa, but there have been some high spots, including Morocco’s memorable 2-0 win against highly-ranked Belgium and Ghana’s 3-2 victory over South Korea. Ghana also pushed Portugal all the way and Cameroon took part in an excellent 3-3 draw with Serbia. There are no thrashings, no humiliations, but it does seem as though Asia and Africa are now comparable in how they fare in the World Cup. Inevitably, there will be some players that will emerge from the competition and find themselves in demand – the FIFA World Cup is a huge shop window, after all.

AFCON 2021: Great for Senegal, but a competition for the committed

NO MATTER how you examine the Africa Cup of Nations 2021, it is hard to conclude this was a riveting tournament full of entertainment. For the neutral audience, the lack of goals and quality marked many games as dull and uninspiring. Some segments of the media tried to convince us this was a wonderful event, using terms such as “colourful” to describe the crowds and players. True, the strips of the 24 nations are very vivid and there are characters in the stands that make for good TV, but if you are uncommitted to a nation, and therefore don’t really care too much how your team gets results, then you want more than binary number results to keep your interest.

Senegal were the best team in the competition, but they could have done so much more with the squad at their disposal. For them, winning AFCON was the priority and they did it, via that unsatisfactory decider of penalties. Senegal scored nine goals in seven games and the overall goals-per-game ratio was 1.92 – a paltry sum for the continent’s premier international competition.

Egypt, their opponents, had slalomed their way to the final with the help of two penalty shoot-outs and had scored four goals. Considering these two teams had Mo Salah and Sadio Mané out on display, the misuse of such talent was something of a crime. It was very clear that this final was not about the clash of the two Liverpool forwards, if it was, then the outcome would have been so different.

Finals in any competition are tense affairs, so perhaps it is unfair to expect a goal-fest, but at times it looked as though Egypt didn’t particularly want to win in open play and Senegal didn’t quite have the savvy to break down their defence. However, Senegal were more attack-minded than a rather dour Egyptian team. It might have been so different if Sadio Mané had scored a penalty awarded in the fourth (and taken in the seventh) minute after Abdelmonem brought down Senegal defender Saliou Ciss in the box. Mané hit a powerful spot-kick, but Gabaski pulled off a spectacular save. At that point, there seemed to be a narrative suggesting the keeper, who had been the hero of two penalty shoot-outs in the round of 16 and semi-final, was shaping-up to be the hero of the hour.

Senegal had started well, but they lost some of their verve after the penalty miss. Egypt came to life and Salah’s superb left-foot shot in the 42nd minute was acrobatically saved by Édouard Mendy.  Into the second half, the game became more scrappy, which suited Egypt as it broke-up Senegal’s flow. 

Gabaski denied Famara Diédhiou when he bravely dived at the big forward’s feet, while at the other end, Egypt central defender Marwan Hamdy should have done better with a header. Inevitably, the game went to extra time and Senegal’s Bamba Dieng had two headers saved by Gabaski. Egypt had a very late opportunity but Hamdy saw his shot tipped over by Mendy. Despite a renewed effort from the Senegalese, the game ended goalless.

And so, the TV spectacle of penalties. High in the stand, the guests from FIFA looked pretty bored behind their masks, but the real drama was to come. For reasons known only to the elite group of players around whom the game revolves, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah were listed to take the fifth penalty for their respective teams. There’s something quite egotistical about this process, one that has been perfected by players like Cristiano Ronaldo – the hero stepping-up to win the game. Why teams allow this to happen when true leadership is shown by starting the shoot-out, is a mystery. Whatever happened to the idea of setting an example?

It backfired for Egypt, but Mané proved to be the matchwinner for Senegal, scoring to make the scoreline 4-2 and making Salah’s kick superfluous. After a tepid evening, he came to the party and wasn’t used.

Senegal deserved their victory but this was their time and the team may not have a long future ahead of it. Skipper Kalidou Koulibaly is 30 and four other members of the starting line-up were over 30 years of age. The two Mendys, Édouard and Nampalys (unrelated), Mané and Diédhiou are all 29. Furthermore, they may not make the World Cup later this year as they face Egypt in their play-off to decide who goes to Qatar. 

AFCON 2021 has received its share of criticism, but given the problems facing Cameroon in getting the competition underway, its completion was no mean achievement. The pandemic, the refereeing, VAR and behaviour might seem very critical issues, but the tragedy of January 24 means there will always be a cloud over the past few weeks. Senegal have their triumph, Cameroon had their AFCON, but people lost their lives. Football is never more important than life and death, wherever you are in the world.