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
South Africa19983

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.

Kick-off in Africa – watch out for Senegal and Algeria

acnIt seems like only yesterday that the last African Cup of Nations last took place, but it’s back and the big challenge will be to get people to take notice, although with so many players missing now from English, Spanish and French football, fans cannot help notice that something else is going on in the world.

The last series, in 2013, was an uninspiring competition, with Nigeria coming out on top. But the old stereotype of African football epitomizing gay abandon is a thing of the past – in South Africa, the average goals per game was down to 2.18, the lowest since 2002. Crowds were healthy, however, with 85,000 watching the final and a tournament average of almost 23,000.

Nigeria will be missing from this year’s party, they finished third in their qualifying group behind South Africa and Congo. Morocco won’t be there, either. The would-be hosts pulled out over fears of Ebola. So Equatorial Guinea, who co-hosted the 2012 finals with Gabon, stepped in and won themselves many friends in Africa. Interestingly, back in July, Equatorial Guinea had been disqualified after fielding an ineligible player against Mauritia. At odds of 28-1, it is unlikely that the host nation will feature in the final on February 8.

Who will then? Favourites this year are Ivory Coast, Senegal and Algeria. The Ivorians are invariably named among the “nations most likely to”, but with Didier Drogba retired, have they got the firepower? Manchester City new boy Wilfried Bony and Roma’s Gervinho can fill the gap left by the Chelsea legend and of course, they do have African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure.

In the era of top players like Drogba and the Toures, Ivory Coast have always fallen short in the African Cup of Nations. They’ve been runners-up twice, quarter-finalists twice and fourth place once in the past five competitions. It would be ironic if, in the first post-Drogba series, they returned home as champions!

A lot of money is being placed on Senegal, who have never won the African Cup of Nations. They’re in a tough group – Algeria (9-2), Ghana (8-1) and South Africa (18-1) and without Southampton’s Sadio Mane, they will not be as formidable as they were a couple of weeks ago. Mane was injured on New Year’s Day when Southampton beat Arsenal 2-0 and it was widely reported that he would be sidelined for up to six weeks. But Senegal coach Alain Giresse (what a player he was…) has taken a gamble by including him in his squad, hoping he may be able to play a part. Papiss Cisse, when he’s in the mood, can be a world-beater, but at the same time, he can frustrate. Much will depend on how he performs.

Senegal and Algeria will probably battle out the group and at the moment, Algerian football is on a high after their displays in the World Cup. They were recently named African Team of the Year for 2014. They followed their impressive Brazil 2014 with a barn-storming qualification programme, winning five of their six games against Mali, Malawi and Ethiopia. All eyes will be on Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, who impressed in Brazil and moved from Granada after being named La Liga’s best African player in 2013-14.

Ghana cannot be discounted and have a good track record to back-up their claim. Avram Grant is their manager and will be under enormous pressure to succeed after Ghana’s disappointing World Cup. The Black Stars are one of the most consistent nations in the competition, having won the trophy on four occasions, the last in 1982. They’ve finished in the first four in all of the last four finals. They may not have the likes of Michael Essien or a Tony Yeboah or Abedi Pele, but they will be expected to feature in the latter stages.

Where else could we see a winner? Tunisia may be a contender, but like North African neighbours Algeria, they may not find the climate of Equatorial Guinea to their liking. Almost half of Tunisia’s squad is drawn from domestic clubs like Espercance, Africain and Etoile du Sahel, a stark contrast to some of the nations participating.

It all kicks off on January 17 with the hosts playing Congo. Equatorial Guinea have a FIFA ranking of 120. Don’t expect too much of them – look towards Ivory Coast, Algeria and Senegal for a likely winner.

FIFA Rankings of the 16 nations:
18 – Algeria; 22 – Tunisia; 28 – Ivory Coast; 35 – Senegal; 37 – Ghana; 39 – Guinea; 40 – Cape Verde; 42 – Cameroon; 49 – Mali; 50 – Zambia; 52 – South Africa; 57 – Congo DR; 61 – Congo; 62 – Gabon; 64 – Burkina Faso; 118 – Equatorial Guinea