The great Brazilian Edson Arantes de Nascimento (“Pele”) once predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. Pele’s prediction is now 10 years overdue. The furthest African teams have managed to get in the World Cup is the quarter-finals (Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002). Pele’s prediction was horribly wrong and is now 10 years overdue. Heck, even Asian teams have managed to get further than African teams. South Korea reached the semi-final in 2002. Before you say “ah but they had home advantage”, if South Korea can get to the semis at home, why can’t an African team do the same?
“Home Advantage” for African Teams
It is not just South Africa that is at home. ALL African teams are essentially playing at “home”. When not supporting their own team, black South African fans tend to root for other African teams, and there is a multiplier effect caused by the fans of other African nations rooting for their “brother” African teams.
When attacking, the Nigeria team of 1994-1998 were as good as any team on Earth. A former German coach said in 1998 that Nigeria were the only team in the world that had better players than Brazil in some positions. A reporter added that Nigeria -v- Brazil with fair tackling would be a heck of a game. Sadly that Nigeria team defended as badly as they attacked. Then came the all conquering Cameroon team that dominated African football between 2000 and 2004. Despite being blessed with talent like Eto’o, Mboma, Song, Mbami and Olembe, they underachieved on the world stage.
Egypt has dominated African football for the past half decade and have won three successive African Nations Cup titles (2006, 2008 and 2010). They have swept all before them and have not lost a match at the African Nations Cup for over 6 (yes SIX!) years. Yet the all conquering Pharoahs did not even qualify for this World Cup. Their star man Mohammed Abou Treika (probably the best player in the world outside Europe) will watch the World Cup on TV and will face the anguish of never playing in a World Cup (did I hear someone say “George Best” and “Ryan Giggs”?!). He is in his 30s now and surely his chance has gone.
Ivory Coast – Orange Power
Africa’s best hope at this World Cup lies with the outrageously talented Ivory Coast team. They have quality and world class players all over the park: the talismanic Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kader Keita (I have not seen anyone other than Cristiano Ronaldo hit a football harder than he does), Gervinho, Kone in attack, the Toure brothers (Yaya and Kolo), Didier Zokora, heck – even the flying full back Arthur Boka cannot get into their first eleven. Their only weak link is their dodgy goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. Yet Ivory Coast are in danger of becoming the 21st century answer to 1990s Nigeria: an outrageously gifted team that does not fulfil its potential by winning a cabinet full of trophies and cementing its legacy.
Yet not all of this is their fault. The draw has not been kind to Ivory Coast. They have (yet again) been drawn in the “Group of Death” with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. That is a horrendous group to qualify from. In the 2006 World Cup, they were similarly in the Group of Death – being pitched against Argentina, Holland and Serbia. Despite scoring six goals against top class opposition and performing admirably in all their games, they were eliminated in the first round. They would surely have qualified had they been placed in any other group. Their opening game draw with Portugal in this World Cup is a good result, but it still leaves them having to take points off both North Korea AND Brazil. With star man Didier Drogba nursing a broken arm, that will not be easy…
This time round, Africa has six teams at the World Cup for the first time. Yet there is a danger that NONE of them will qualify for the second round. Nigeria and Cameroon lost their first game and face uphill tasks to qualify. South Africa actually over-achieved by drawing with Mexico and will be fortunate to get points from their upcoming games against Uruguay and France.
*UPDATE* I have just watched an utterly toothless performance by South Africa against Uruguay. They were outclassed by Uruguay and Diego Forlan was exceptional for Uruguay. South Africa did not manage to create a single clear cut chance in 90 minutes, and the 3-0 scoreline to Uruguay did not flatter them. Looks like the hosts are on their way out. If they are eliminated in the first round, it will be hard to maintain home fans’ interest in the World Cup unless another African team(s) get through to the second round.
Algeria look doomed. The failure of any African team to qualify for the second round, at the first World Cup held in Africa would be a major humiliation for African football. We cannot rely on old cliches about “naive” defending or a lack of tactical nous. The African teams are coached by world class coaches like Sven Goran Eriksson and Carlos Alberto Perreira.
Ghana – Let the Black Stars Rise
Ghana beat a very good Serbia team and have put themselves in an excellent position to qualify. Their victory over Serbia was all the more remarkable because they were without their lethal midfield quartet of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Haminu Draman. That quartet is probably the best midfield in Africa. Ghana have a young, fit, hard working and functional team. If they can beat Australia, their match with the dreaded Germans will be academic and they will reach the second round.