By: Austin Inyang.
Back in the early 1970s, England’s Bobby Charlton had predicted that an African team would win the FIFA World Cup before the close of the 20th century. But over a decade into the 21st, Africa’s quest continues. Africa is yet to record a semi-final appearance at the Mundial, let alone lifting the trophy. So, will that quest be fulfilled in 2014, as the world gathers in Brazil to celebrate the beautiful game?
Looking back, Africa already has a lot to celebrate, having come such a long way from having to fight for just ONE automatic ticket in the ’70s, to the present day where it can actually dream of snatching the trophy from the grip of the European and South American teams that have dominated it for so long. On the other hand, there are those who say that an African triumph at the Mundial highly unlike anytime soon, thanks to a combination of factors, chief of which are poor planning, naïveté, mental and psychological unreadiness, as well as the obstacles posed by bureaucratic bottlenecks erected by officials in a part of the world where football is still run by government and its agencies, and is seen largely as a pastime, not the commercial and marketing juggernaut it is in Europe and elsewhere.
Before the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Africa was not seen as a soccer playing region deserving of her own automatic slot among the qualifiers for the finals. Africa was finally invited to the World Cup party in 1970, when the Mundial was held in Mexico. The continent’s sole representative, the Atlas Lions of Morocco, arrived in Mexico on a mission to project the strength, not just of Moroccan football, but African football as a whole. But they found the going rather tough, as they were only able to garner a point from three first-round games, as they finished bottom of their group as well. Still, a point was made, as stakeholders agreed that the North Africans’ unique, freewheeling brand of play brought a rather exotic and welcome feel to the World Cup – dominated as it was by the clinical play of the Europeans and the technical virtuosity of the South Americans. But if Morocco had proved Africa worthy of playing among the big boys of international soccer, the continent’s next representatives in the 1974 World Cup, the former Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) nearly returned the continent to the doldrums of World Cup absenteeism, as they lost all 3 of their group games including a scandalous 0-9 loss to Yugoslavia. Zaire’s performance in 1974 provided ample ammunition to those who resented Africa’s automatic slot. Everybody agreed that Africa did not need another performance like that if she was to keep her hard-won place at the Mundial. Africa, in short, would need redemption in 1978.
Tunisia arrived in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup fiercely determined to redeem African football in the eyes of the world after the terrible display of Zaire four years earlier. The first victims of their determination was Mexico, whom they beat 3-1 their opening game in Rosario. This victory, Africa’s first at the World Cup, was followed by an impressive draw with the defending champions West Germany and a narrow 1-0 loss to Poland. Though the Tunisians exploits were not enough to take them beyond the group stage, their never-say-die spirit was not lost on those who were privileged to see it – nor on FIFA, who promptly rewarded Africa with a second slot in the run-up to the 1982 Mundial in Spain.
Cameroon and Algeria were the continent’s 2 representatives in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Zoned into 2 tough first-round groups, the two teams proved their mettle in their opening encounters against the tournament’s eventual winners and runners-up respectively, Cameroon drawing 1-1 against Italy, and Algeria defeating European champions West Germany 2-1. It was an unmistakable signal of Africa’s intent on the world stage. Cameroon went on to draw goalless with the 2 other teams in their group, but though they finished on the same points as Italy, the Cameroonians were eliminated on goal difference. Algeria, after their scintillating performance against the Germans, lost narrowly to Austria 1-0 in their second game, before beating Chile 3-2. If the Algerians thought that 2 group-stage victories would be enough to see them through to the knockout stages, they were sadly mistaken. In one of the most disgraceful episodes in World Cup history, West Germany and Austria conspired to fix their own encounter, having already known the outcome of the Algeria-Chile game. The result – a 1-0 win for the Germans – meant that they and their Austrian cousins would qualify into the next round at Algeria’s expense. Portugal, winning 3-1 and finishing on top of the group – a first for Africa. However, their quest for a quarter-final ticket was halted by West Germany, as the Germans won 1-0. Cameroon returned to the summit of international football in 1990, as the World Cup finals opened in Italy. Cameroon were joined by Egypt, who, perhaps because of their long absence at the World Cup finals, were clearly out of their depth. Known as The Pharaohs, they exited the tournament in less than royal fashion after two draws and a loss. It was left to Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions to carry Africa’s hopes in the tournament. And rise to the occasion, they did! Their opening game against the defending champions, Argentina, which they won 1-0, sent shock waves throughout the world of football. To prove that the victory over Argentina was no fluke, the Cameroonians followed it up with another stunning victory over a particularly talented Romanian side. Even more remarkable than the 2-1 victory was the fact that the 2 goals were scored by the ageing, 38-year old Roger Milla, who had come in as a substitute. Thanks to his Makossa celebration, the world learned one more thing about Africa – beside the robustness of its football, that is. Cameroon took on the colorful Colombians for a chance to go a step further than the Moroccans in 1986 i.e. become the first African country to reach the last 8. Cometh the moment, as they say, cometh the man. Again, it was Roger Milla, who came off the bench to score twice in extra-time – the second goal a veritable comedy of errors involving the erratic Colombian goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, whose tendency towards flashy heroics met its Waterloo in the Italian sunshine. It was a result which sent the entire continent of Africa delirious with joy. As the Cameroonians stepped onto the pitch to confront England in the quarter-finals, they demonstrated their fearlessness with 2 goals in quick succession late in the second half, after an early goal by the English. But 2 controversial penalties to England late in the game, enabled England to win 3-2 and finally end the African dream.
Cameroon’s display provided an unbeatable argument for a 3rd African slot at the World Cup. Morocco and Cameroon secured the first two tickets for Africa, but it was the 3rd representative that eventually made the biggest impression. 1994 was the year in which the world knew that ‘the Eagle has landed’. After many near-misses in the past, Nigeria finally made her debut at the global showpiece. The Super Eagles arrived America with a larger-than-life persona, having won the African Cup of Nations earlier that year and climbing up to 5th in the FIFA rankings (the highest-ever placing by an African team). The quick elimination of Cameroun and Morocco in the first round put the spotlight squarely on the Super Eagles, and they responded in their opening game by hammering Bulgaria 3-0. After a controversial loss 2-1 to Argentina, the Eagles easily brushed aside fellow newcomers Greece to advance at the top of the group and set them on a collision course with 3-time champions Italy. After an early goal by Emmanuel put Nigeria ahead, the game settled into a ding-dong battle. But rather than capitalize on their advantage, the Nigerians lost concentration as the Italians leveled scores and then scored the winning goal in extra-time. It was a sad way to end a promising run, and as Italy put their near-death experience behind them and raced all the way to the final against Brazil in Los Angeles, Nigerians were left to ponder on what might have been.
With the granting of 5 slots to Africa for the 1998 world cup in France, Africa’s presented -timers Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria, and new comers South Africa, fresh from being re-admitted into the global soccer community after being shut out on account of the apartheid system. All in all, however, 1998 was a disappointing outing for Africa, as 4 of the continent’s representatives crashed out in the first round. The only bright light was Nigeria, which advanced at the head of its group after a memorable come-from-behind victory against Spain in the northern city of Nantes. A further 1-0 victory over Bulgaria gave Nigeria another 2nd round ticket. But as in 1994, the promise turned to ashes as the Super Eagles, undone by sloppy defending and perhaps a bit of overconfidence, suffered a 4-1 humiliation at the hands of Denmark.
The 2002 World Cup was the first to be jointly hosted by two countries, and the first to be held outside Europe and the Americas. Korea/Japan 2002 saw the old-timers joined by newcomers Senegal. The Nigerians, who had been Africa’s unofficial standard bearers for the last two editions of the World Cup, took the early flight home with the rest, leaving the Senegalese debutants to carry the continent’s embattled flag. An opening-day 1-0 victory over defending champions France in Seoul established Senegal as the new African Cinderella at the global showcase. Senegal finished 2nd in their group after drawing Denmark and Uruguay, and went on to equal Cameroon’s record of a quarterfinal appearance following a 2-1 golden-goal victory over Sweden. But they were themselves on the receiving end of another golden goal in their quarterfinal game against Turkey.
Even before kicking a single ball, Africa created the record of the continent with the highest number of newcomers at the 2006 World Cup, held in Germany. Of the 5, only Tunisia had previous World Cup experience, as Angola, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire all made their debuts at the Mundial. Some of them, like Togo and Angola, made up in enthusiasm and energy what they lacked in the requisite technical savvy to compete at the top level. Ghana’s Black Stars were the only African team standing, having recovered from an opening day loss to eventual champions Italy to record victories over a highly-rated Czech Republic and the United States. But thrown onto the propellers of Brazil in the round of 16, the Ghanaians went down in flames via a 3-0 scoreline.
2010 was supposed to be the Year of Africa, as Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire joined hosts South Africa at the tournament. But if the Africans thought that holding the Mundial in Mother Africa would somehow give them some extraordinary advantage over their visitors, they were sadly mistaken as they all – with the exception of Ghana’s Black Stars – fell like ninepins in the first round, with South Africa’s Bafana Bafana setting the unwanted record of being the first host nation to fail to advance beyond the first round in the tournament’s 70-year history, despite a scintillating opening game against Mexico in which Siphiwe Tshabalala scored one of the tournament’s most memorable goals.
Ghana, on the other hand, stormed into the quarterfinal, matching Cameroon’s in Senegal’s feats in 1990 and 2002 respectively, after a heart-warming 2-1 victory over the USA. But they too, fell victim to Africa’s perennial quarterfinal jinx in their game against Uruguay. Having taken the lead through Sulley Muntari’s low strike in the first half, the Black Stars saw their lead cancelled by Diego Forlan’s equalizer. What followed after that – especially in the extra time theatrics and eventual penalty shootout was a study in high-octane drama and eventual heartbreak. The sight of that ball sailing into that Johannesburg night – and with it Africa’s hopes of a first semi-final appearance – is one that all of Africa will like to forget.
It has been a 40-year tale that has seen its share of heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. What does 2014 hold for Africa? Who among the continent’s 5 representatives will shine the brightest? Nigeria’s Super Eagles? The Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire? Ghana’s Black Stars? Algeria’s Desert Warriors? Or the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun?
The answer, as the old song goes, is blowing in the wind.
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