It’s over. The final ball has been kicked, and the last whistle blown. The FIFA World Cup is over … A month after 32 teams, spanning six continents and involving 736 of the world’s best footballers enthralled a global audience of billions in the world’s biggest sporting event, the final curtain has been drawn.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter has made his way to the podium and is standing proudly next to the most coveted prize in sport–a glimmering 5-kilogramme, 18-carat gold trophy– as he awaits the World Cup-winning captain.
Then, as if in slow motion, the captain, followed closely by his teammates, steps onto the podium. As they approach the trophy, an air of sheer disbelief pervades the scene. The winners, you see, are from Africa…
A continent is transfixed. Hope, they say, springs eternal in the human breast, and here, right before our disbelieving eyes, our deepest hopes – our wildest dreams – are being realised in full, beautiful technicolour. Surreal…
Then, as quickly as it began, it’s cruelly, unbearably, over. No African team, no Sepp Blatter and no World Cup. You sit up as you stare into the awful darkness, awakened from your nocturnal fantasies. Your African dream has come to a shuddering halt. If only, if only…
As a continent, winning the World Cup remains our greatest sporting ambition. But, since the competition’s inception in 1930, and after 19 editions, our collective longing has remained unfulfilled.
Let the countdown begin
Now, as the countdown to World Cup 2014 begins in earnest, Africa dreams once more. Has the Dark Continent’s time arrived at last, or must we wait longer still?
The FIFA World Cup is one of the most prestigious sporting events on this planet, eclipsed only by the Olympics in stature. Football captures the imagination of every nation, far outreaching any other sport.
More than 200 teams attempt to qualify for this global showpiece over a two-year period preceding the World Cup, after which, following various phases of competition, 32 qualify.
The tournament has grown enormously in stature and size since its inauguration in 1930, when only 13 teams participated at the first World Cup in Uruguay.
The next World Cup was hosted by Italy in 1934 – with participation increasing to 16 teams. This remained the case until 1982 when 24 teams took part. With football’s popularity growing at a rate of knots in every corner of the globe, by 1998, 32 teams were taking part.
On June 12 this year, the 20th FIFA World Cup will kick off in Brazil – the most successful World cup country, with five trophies to its name.
Africa at World Cups
Africa has never had a World Cup winner. In fact, no African team has ever made it past the quarterfinal stage of the event. Yet, unlike many other countries, no African team has been criticised for losing out at the quarterfinal stage. Instead, they have been lauded on their return home for achieving this feat – and rightly so.
Africa’s rise at the FIFA World Cup was slow. Egypt was the first African team to participate at the World Cup final in 1934 – the first edition in 1930 had no African representative. Under Scottish coach James McCrae, Egypt went out in the first round after playing only one game, against Hungary, which the latter won 4-2.
After Egypt’s debut for Africa in 1934, the continent did not have a team at the event again until 1970. Again, in a 16-team tournament, there was only one African team: Morocco.
Since 1970, Africa has had at least one representative at each World Cup. The increase in teams from 16 to 24 in 1982 allowed Africa another entrant. For the 1994 World Cup, Africa had three teams and for every World Cup since 1998, five teams have represented the continent.
Despite an increase in participation, African teams struggled. The continent had to wait until the 1986 World Cup in Mexico to see the first African team – Morocco – get past the first round.
The 1990 World Cup was the springboard for Africa, with Cameroon producing the best performance by an African team when they reached the quarterfinal stage. It was a remarkable achievement for a continent that was considered inferior in footballing terms to Europe, South America and Co. Suddenly, the world sat up and took note.
Setting the stage alight
Cameroon set the tournament alight in their first game when they defeated world champions, Argentina, 1-0 in a shock result that reverberated across the globe. But they weren’t done yet, going on to beat Romania as well before losing their final group game against the then Soviet Union.
A win in the second round over Columbia led to a quarterfinal game against England, which Cameroon were highly unfortunate to lose in extra time.
But although Cameroon captured the world’s imagination and, indeed, the hearts of billions, in 1990, the country and Africa as a whole failed to capitalise in later years.
The next two World Cups passed by with only Nigeria (1994 and 1998) getting into the second round. In a result not many predicted, Senegal pushed through into the quarterfinal at the 2002 World Cup. Showing the same character and strength as Cameroon had 12 years earlier, they also defeated the reigning world champions, France, in their opening game. Africa had waited 12 years for another exceptional showing, but disappointment was to strike again as Senegal crashed out against Turkey after defeating Sweden in the second round.
The 2006 World Cup offered little other than the norm, with only Ghana making it past the initial stage of the tournament.
Roll on 2010, and the first World Cup to be hosted on this football-mad continent – in South Africa, of course. This, there can be no doubt, was out best chance ever. For the first time in its history, the event had come to African soil and, as the 32 teams, along with their supporters, flocked to the most southern country on the continent, Africa dared to dream once more.
A home World Cup ensured all African teams were well supported. Fanatical fans, however, were to be sorely disappointed yet again.
Hearts beating as one
The hosts went out in the group stage, along with three other African teams as, once again, the group stage appeared to be Africa’s limit. However, Ghana progressed and then went on to beat the United States in the round of 16. A continent’s heart beat as one.
With Ghana Africa’s only representative left in the 2010 tournament, South Africa – and indeed thousands of other African supporters who had made the trip south – rallied behind the ‘Black Stars’. It is unity such as this that sets Africa apart; no other continent rallies behind a single country like we do. We back our continental brothers to the hilt, and a victory for one is a victory for Africa as a whole.
Ghana was to face Uruguay in their quarterfinal, with a dream semifinal beckoning – a stage no African team had graced before.
If Maradona’s first goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England is known as the ‘hand of God’, then Uruguay striker Luis Suárez’s blatant handball on the goal line, with a minute to play in the 2010 quarterfinal against Ghana, should surely go down in the annals of football infamy as the ‘hand of the devil’.
Heartbreakingly, agonisingly, Ghana finally crashed out on penalties, after having just about won the game. They were literally centimetres away from being in the semifinal – and it can’t get much closer than that.
Ghana’s heroics in 2010 notwithstanding, for a continent whose inhabitants love football almost as a religion, consistently poor overall performances at the global showpiece should be worrying, to say the least. The truth is, though, that we have come almost to ‘expect’ African teams to fail – and few would put much money on Africa providing the winner in Brazil this year.
Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana were lauded for their feats in 1990, 2002 and 2010 respectively, and so they should be. These were feats worth celebrating. But why has a continent as passionate about the beautiful game as we are, only seen three quarterfinalists in the 12 World Cups it has participated in?The reasons are manifold…
Poverty is one of the most prevalent factors. Most of Africa is poor, and poor nations cannot afford the top-class infrastructure found in Europe.
Sihlo Blose, freelance journalist and researcher on African football, agrees poverty is a key factor, and he goes on to offer more reasons African football continues to struggle on the global stage.
“Civil wars have completely collapsed the little infrastructure that was available; without proper stadiums and training fields, we are at a big disadvantage”, he says.
“Many African football associations rely on government funding and often the money they get is not enough to do much with – it’s only enough to run the administration of the football association,” he adds.
Africans in Europe
A major debate over the years has been around the influx of Africans into European leagues. Many views are offered on this subject: some are pro-Africans moving abroad, while others are against the idea.
The idealist in us wants Africa’s best players to stay at home in order to improve our continent’s leagues, but reality is seldom ideal. It is a well-known fact that Africa is the poorest continent on earth and many families only have one breadwinner, so when a lucrative offer comes in from a European club, it is extremely difficult to turn down.
Indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a player to remain at home on a hungry stomach out of pure loyalty. In today’s day and age, financial security is the ultimate goal of any football professional – and why shouldn’t it be?
Editor of www.africanfootball.com, Neil Greig, sees no problem with African players moving to Europe. Indeed, he believes leagues in Europe are stronger because of this trend. In an interview with Leadership, Greig said the smaller leagues like Belgium, Denmark and Portugal played a big role in readying African players for moves to some of the European powerhouses.
There are hundreds of African players currently plying their trade in Europe, and SABC football analyst Coudjoe Amankwaa believes this helps “relieve poverty on the continent”.
Poor administration of the game on the African continent also plays a massive role in Africa’s failure. Amankwaa says administrators in Africa still see the game as “recreation and a hobby, instead of as a business”.
While Africa loses many of its top talents to Europe, Greig says the poor administration of the game in Africa is the reason talented players who remain in their home league are not nurtured to create a more exciting brand for football fans. But, he adds, “South Africa is a huge exception to this, as are Tunisia and Egypt, who get it right.”
Coaching remains a big issue in Africa. While there are many top-class coaches going around on the international stage, many African clubs are trained by unqualified coaches.
Blose says apart from the lack of qualified coaches, another major problem is the influx of European and South American coaches onto the continent. Every culture is different and it is a very complex situation when one comes from another continent to coach in Africa.
He adds that “many of these coaches have no credibility in their own countries, but in Africa they are given some of the biggest jobs”.
Poor coaching structures and coaching courses throughout Africa are also to blame. Although more emphasis has been placed on establishing proper coaching courses over the last couple of years, the benefits of this may take a little longer to be seen.
Opinion is split on whether Africa deserves more than five teams at the World Cup. The one side of the argument is that Africa’s performances on the world stage have not been of a standard that should allow them more participants.
But, on the flip side of the coin, Africa has more countries than any other continent, yet we have less competing countries at this global showpiece.
African football journalist, writer and newspaper columnist, Michael Oti Adjei, believes that performance on the field is the only qualification that should be used.
“The continent has been represented by its best sides, and their failure to progress has been glaring,” he says. “This suggests a continent still grappling to cope with the demands of World Cup football.”
Greig, meanwhile, says Africa has by far the toughest qualifying phase for the World Cup. “The fact that 56 countries fight it out for the right to be one of five going to the FIFA World Cup shows how tough the continental challenge is,” he says. On that basis, he believes Africa deserves a sixth spot.
However, Greig believes Africa needs to earn this additional spot on the field by having an African team reach the semifinal stage in Brazil. Were this to happen, he believes Africa should get a sixth team at the next event
But Amankwaa discards the importance of on-field performances, saying it is “unfair” that a continent that is home to 54 countries is only given five World Cup slots while Europe has 53 countries, but gets 13.
2014 FIFA World Cup
The days of Africa being happy with qualifying for this global showpiece are long gone. African teams go to the World Cup with a great weight of expectation bearing down on them, just as other teams do. They are expected to perform at optimum level and showcase their countries on the biggest stage of all.
The five African teams at this year’s FIFA World Cup are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon.
At the last two World Cups, the Ivory Coast has probably been Africa’s best chance of success. They have been through a period where a golden generation of players has shone through, and most of these players’ careers will come to a close after Brazil 2014.
At the last two World Cups, Ivory Coast found themselves in two dreadful groups and failed to emerge from the group stages.
This year, however, is different, with the country finding itself in a favourable draw. Most of their stars are in the twilight of their international careers, which could go one of two ways: their experience will count in their favour, but the question is, can the ‘old guard’ hold up for this month-long tournament?
Ghana has been Africa’s best performing team at the last two World Cups, and they will feel the burden of expectation weighing down on them once again.
The blend of youth and experience in their ranks is impressive. They also have the most balanced outfit of the African teams.
Nigeria are reigning African champions and come into the World Cup with momentum. After struggling for a few years, they have found their old unity again. Oti Adjei puts it thus: “Nigeria have found their appetite and hunger for the big clash again.”
Algeria and Cameroon
These are the African teams most people expect to struggle. Algeria don’t have as many overseas stars as the other African representatives, but they will be a good unit. The question is whether being a good unit is enough to get out of a tough group.
Chelsea forward Samuel Eto’o will offer Cameroon quality upfront, but the rest of the team doesn’t inspire much confidence – experience- or quality-wise.
This World Cup offers African teams an opportunity to go out and show the quality that the continent possesses. It is highly unlikely that an African team will be celebrating as world champion in Brazil – but with football, one can never say anything with absolute certainty.
What is for certain, though, is that one day, in the not too distant future, we will witness an African team lifting the World Cup trophy. Then pride will beat in our breasts and we will unite as one. Bad memories will be cast asunder, and our continent will ignite with joy. On that wonderful day, we will finally live the African dream.