EDITORIAL COMMENT: African teams should take stock of World Cup performances

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Super Eagles of Nigeria

Super Eagles of Nigeria

African interest in the 2018 Fifa World Cup underway in Russia should have waned a little bit after all the five nations representing the continent crashed out of the competition at the group stage.

They managed just three wins, two draws and lost 10 games in 15 attempts. The record is a total disaster; a giant step backward, little wonder why football experts have said this was Africa’s worst performance in 36 years at the global soccer showcase.

Egypt, who dominate African football at club and national team level, were the worst performers after they lost all their three games. They lost to Uruguay 0-1 in the opening game; went down 1-3 against the hosts Russia in their second game. They had been effectively eliminated from the tournament at that stage but many thought they could, in their third and final group game, salvage some of their pride against a team of comparable strength — Saudi Arabia. However, they fell 2-1.

Morocco, who are also big in the African game, lost to Iran 1-0 in their first match and again by the same scoreline against Portugal.  Unlike their North African compatriots, Egypt who embarrassed themselves to fly out of Russia without a point, Morocco got theirs against 2010 world champions Spain after a 2-2 draw in their final group game. This was a significant result for them against one of the globe’s biggest soccer-playing nations.

Nigeria went off to a bad start, falling 2-0 to Croatia but rallied themselves up in their second by defeating Iceland by the same goal margin. Africa started believing, having watched how unconvincing Nigeria’s next opponents, Argentina were in their own games. Lionel Messi hadn’t really shone for Argentina before Nigeria so when he faced the West Africans we told ourselves we would conquer. They played a dramatic game that ended in yet another African heartbreak — Nigeria 1, Argentina 2.

Tunisia were eliminated after losing their first two games, 1-2 against England and 2-5 against Belgium. The North African side, however, did well in their third when they emerged 2-1 winners over World Cup debutants Panama.

Our hearts were now with Senegal who made a big impact the last time they were at the World Cup; the last time they played in the East. In 2002 in South Korea and Japan, they advanced to the quarter finals, having earlier beaten France, the world champions going into the tournament. In Russia this time, they defeated Poland 2-0, and drew 2-2 against Japan in a game that neutrals thought the Africans were supposed to win.  They then lost 1-0 in their third and last game, against Colombia.

What’s going on?  Where is Africa getting it wrong? Is it about lack of talent?

“Africa is going to be successful one day but we need to think again how we approach these big competitions,” former Cote d’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba told BBC.

“It’s a big step back. I also think it is a chance for all the African teams and for the African Confederation maybe to reconsider the strategy and how we want to go forward.  What do we want to do in the next World Cup? We have the potential, we have the money to develop, but we need more than that. We need to have the consistency and the structure of the European teams and the South American teams.”

Only three African countries — Ghana (in 2010), Senegal (2002) and Cameroon (1990) — have reached the quarter final stage in the history of the Fifa World Cup.  However, there appears to be no noticeable progression for African teams at the senior level although the youth teams have done better.

Africans are playing in top leagues in Europe which is regarded as the hub of the sport globally. Many have played or are playing for big teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus and so on. A good number has won the Uefa Champions League with these sides, as well as the Europa League.

But when they come home everything doesn’t seem to work. Could it be that African teams only have individual stars but do not have coherent teams? Could it be that our players lack the mental and physical stamina to compete at that stage? We don’t know.

We don’t think lack of resources is a plausible point as to why our representatives aren’t doing well at the World Cup. In fact most countries whose teams tend to consistently qualify to compete there aren’t so poor as to be unable to prepare their squads and pay them well for participating.

African football administrators, coaches, players and governments need to ask themselves why the continent continues to perform badly when other confederations are doing well and improving.