Many years ago Pele famously predicted that by the year 2000, an African nation will have won football’s greatest prize, the World Cup. Unfortunately it turned out he wasn’t as great a fortune teller as he was a footballer, with no African sides so far in the competition’s history really showing the potential to win the competition outright. Cameroon, inspired by the evergreen Roger Milla in 1990 were the first to come relatively close, eventually being knocked out by England in the quarter finals following a brave 3-2 defeat. Senegal also reached the quarter finals in 2002, their squad having an abundance of solid players, but their dream ended in tears with a defeat by the Turks. With the World Cup arriving on African shores for the first time, could 2010 be the year that this trend changes? All the nations from the continent will be looking to impress, none less than host nation South Africa, and with players such as Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Steven Pienaar and Samuel Eto’o at the disposal of African teams, does this summer’s World Cup represent Africa’s best hope of winning football’s biggest prize?
If the recent African Cup of Nations is anything to go by, then the answer is almost certainly no. A dour competition witnessed many 0-0 and 1-0 score lines; a sign of a lack of quality up front, and the occasional 4-4, a sign of leaky defences. Matches were poorly attended, and frankly those who didn’t show up didn’t miss much. Ironically, the tournament’s winners, and the highest FIFA ranked African nation, Egypt, failed to qualify for the World Cup, making the chance of an African team winning the tournament even slimmer.
Egypt aside however, the six African nations who did qualify for the tournament are arguably the strongest remaining six in Africa. The Ivory Coast, now managed by Sven Goran Eriksson have arguably the strongest African squad on paper, but have been victims of a cruel draw, finding themselves in a group with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea, and even if they did get through, their mostly likely opposition in the next round would be Spain. The match against Portugal could well be crucial, and while the Portuguese will be favourites, the one thing their squad misses is a striker of Didier Drogba’s quality, so if service to the big man is good, he may well be key if the Ivorians are to cause a shock.
Host nation South Africa were also given a tough draw, being drawn against France, Uruguay and Mexico. While none of these matches will be easy, if France play as poorly as they did in qualifying, the group could be very interesting as anybody could realistically beat anybody! Home advantage often inspires the host nation to impressive performances, and if Benni McCarthy can return to form and Steven Pienaar remains fit, then South Africa have the quality to emerge from the group, which could potentially set up a last sixteen match against Nigeria.
Nigeria and Cameroon are two teams who have failed to achieve in the 00’s what they showed they were capable of in the 90’s. However, while both teams have tough groups, they are groups that both have the potential to qualify from. Nigeria will have to steer past Argentina, South Korea and Greece, Cameroon past the Netherlands, Japan and Denmark. They may not be Africa’s strongest teams, but could well be the ones to represent Africa in the knockout stages.
Ghana could potentially be England’s opponents in the last 16 if they can navigate their way past Germany, Serbia and Australia. A very young Ghanaian squad reached the final of the African Cup of Nations in January, and that was without key players such as Michael Essian, Stephen Appiah, John Mensah and Sulley Muntari. Granted the quality in that tournament was poor, but Ghana have a good balance of youth and experience, and again have a good chance of reaching the last 16 if they play to their best, though that could be where their journey ends.
The final team in the competition is Algeria, who have been drawn with the USA, Slovenia and of course, England. While Algeria don’t have the star players that the other African nations do, they will feel the draw has been kind to them and may well be eyeing up a runners up spot.
The first main issue for African teams then is that they have been drawn into difficult groups. Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa may well get through their groups, but most likely as runners up, which invariably leads to stronger opposition in the last 16. The second issue is strength of squads, and to win the World Cup outright you have to beat 4 strong teams in the knockout stages in succession, and while African teams are much stronger than they used to be, they are still playing catch up with their European and South American rivals. To get to the quarter finals would be a great and realistic achievement for an African team, but at the moment it looks like the dream of seeing an African team lift the trophy on home soil will remain a dream.