By David Onjili
In the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, Cameroon made history by being the first African country to reach the Cup quarter finals. It was then that Roger Miller made his hip shake dance goal celebration an iconic feature at the same tournament. 12 years later, in 2002, Senegal shocked then defending world champions France by beating them one goal to nil courtesy of a Papa Bouba Diop goal and eventually reaching the quarter finals before being eliminated by Turkey. Since then, no other African team has fared well at the continental soccer showpiece, with teams regularly getting eliminated at the group stages, with most of the representatives even failing to win a single game.
Nigeria’s Super Eagles in 1996 showed a lot of promise especially coming into the tournament on the back of winning the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta Georgia in USA, a feat that saw them beat both Argentina and Brazil to be crowned champions. Unfortunately, they went out in the second round. Since then, talk has been around in soccer circles that the quality of African football and that their teams at the world stage needs to be reduced from five to three representatives. Despite hosting the finals in South Africa in 2010 where Luis Suarez denied Ghana a quarter final berth when he handballed a goal bound shot, and conceded a penalty which Asamoah Gyan missed; ultimately Uruguay eliminated them. There has not been much to write home about in terms of African teams at the continental stage.
Despite poor showing by African teams, African players have continued to bestride the game of soccer. George Oppong Weah, who is a leading candidate in the Liberian presidential elections, won both the world player and European player of the year awards in 1995 beating legendary players like Paolo Maldini and Jurgen Klisnman. From Austin Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Hossam Hassan, Abedi Pele, Lucas Radebe and Mustapha Hadji to the current crop of talent in the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Riyadh Mahrez, Alex Iwobi, Mohamed Salah and the effervescent Sadio Mane are all names that the entire football world knows and respect.
The 2018 World Cup finals qualifiers have been concluded and Africa will have their five representatives in Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco. These teams have shown the shift in balance of soccer on the continent, and laid bare the deteriorating standards of the game in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa – something must be done by the respective football federations to bridge this gap.
But what about the qualifying teams?
They make a return to the world cup after a 28 year absence under the coaching of Argentina-born tactician Hector Cuper. The man who was appointed in 2015 masterminded the return of Egypt as a soccer powerhouse by guiding them to their first AFCON after three failed appearances where they went all the way to the finals before losing 2-1 to Cameroon.
The Pharaohs journey to Russia 2018 was anchored on four main pillars. The 86,000 capacity Borg El Arab in Alexandria is described as an impenetrable pillar along the Mediterranean, and the pharaohs made it their fortress winning all their matches including the historic game against Congo, where a 95th minute injury time penalty from Mohamed Salah sealed their place before a record 86,000-strong crowd.
Their second pillar is forty four year old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, who came from international retirement of 2013 to help guide the team to success. Mohammed Abdul Shafi, the sleek left sided winger, was a constant threat to opposition defences. Their third pillar is former AS Roma and current Liverpool FC forward Mohamed Salah. Salah transferred his incredible club form to the national team scoring crucial wins like the only goal against Uganda Cranes, as well as the two goals in their final game against Congo which assured their place. The story of the Pharaohs cannot be told without telling that of their midfield anchor man and Arsenal player Mohamed El Nenny. His dominant midfield displays of breaking play and shielding their defence was the foundation of the Pharaoh’s success going forward.
They had been pitted in what many termed as the group of death, at least on paper, Nigeria was against other African powerhouses, Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria but they ended up being the first nation on the continent to qualify for Russia. They won four games and drew the remaining two. The Super Eagles are coached by Gernot Rohr who is deputised by Salisu Yusuf. Their midfield is anchored by John Obi Mikel while Vincent Enyeama is a sure pair of hands between the posts, as they rely on goals from an array of youthful strikers who have already made their names in Europe in the likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Victor Moses.
Commonly referred to as the Atlas Lions, they will be making their fourth appearance at the World Cup. They are the only team in the qualifiers who went through the qualifying rounds without conceding a single goal. They also beat Cote d’Ivoire two goals to nil away on the final day to book their place in Russia 2018.
Morocco will be relying on the vast experience of Juventus player Mehdi Benatia, and Hakim Ziyachi will be the man to provide the goals. They boast a mean defence and the experience of Coach Herve Renard. The side will be trying to outmarch the era of Mustapha Hadji when the tournament starts next year. Coach Renard is billed as one of the most successful foreign coaches on the continent, having led both Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire to winning the African Cup of Nations. Many will expect him to translate this experience at the world stage and guide the Moroccans past the group stages.
Tunisia and Senegal
The North Africans will be making their fourth appearance at Cup next year. They made it by qualifying top of their group, which included Democratic Republic of Congo, winning four games and drawing the other two. Tunisia will be relying on the services of dependable players like Aymen Trabelsi in midfield, while Youssef Msakni and Taha Khenissi will be relied upon to lead their attack. They are coached by the experienced Nabil Maaloul.
Senegal makes a return to the world cup after their impressive run in 2002. Their story cannot be told without mentioning Liverpool FC winger and, arguably, their most inspirational player, Sadio Mane, a nominee for the African Player of the year 2017. His goals and team performances have inspired the nation to success and topping a group that included Burkina Faso.
Senegal boasts one of the most balance squads going into the world cup. A midfield marshaled by Idrissa Gueye, with dependable players like Cheikhou Kouyate, Moussa Sow, Diafra Sakho experienced Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly put them at the top of the pack. They will also be banking on their coach Aliou Cisse, a former player for the national team and whose experience as a former player and youth coach will be highly invaluable.
African teams at the world cup often bring back bad results, despite their players shining in European leagues. This inability of the superstars to replicate their form for the clubs has always been a worry. Cote d’Ivoire is a good example of a talented team that sought the services of a flop in Coach Marc Wilmots and ended up sacking him after failure to qualify for Russia 2018.
With the draw for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia now out, there are mouth-watering ties that soccer lovers on the continent can look forward to. On paper, Morocco appears to be in the toughest group alongside former world champions Spain, Portugal and less fancied Iran. But, if we have learnt anything in football, it is that the beautiful game does not respect names. Proper preparations and determination are the ingredients to success at this stage. Let the games begin! ^