There was a time when we talked of an African nation winning the World Cup as an inevitability, but the new world order promised by the fearless Cameroon and Nigeria teams of the 1990s—and famously predicted by Pele—is no closer to arriving.
We have still yet to see an African nation past the quarterfinal stage of a World Cup. At the 2010 edition, five of their six representatives failed to make it out of the group stages, despite the tournament being hosted on home soil in South Africa.
Reigning 2010 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) winners Egypt didn't qualify. Nigeria, who finished third at that tournament, mustered one point from their three group matches. Fourth-placed Algeria failed to register a goal and took their solitary point against a woefully, woefully poor England in a 0-0 draw.
Only Ghana made it to the knockout stages, and could have gone deeper than the quarters if not for Luis Suarez's goalkeeping antics for Uruguay and Asamoah Gyan missing the most gilt-edged opportunity in his nation's sporting history.
But Ghana's hard-luck story should not disguise the fact they were not, by any estimations, a great side in 2010. They had their moments, but we certainly weren't looking at a team capable, or deserving, of winning a World Cup.
That fact was proven by their struggles at the 2012 AFCON, where Ghana needed extra time to beat Tunisia in the quarters and fell to eventual winners Zambia in the semifinals. Hardly the performance of a team in the ascendancy.
The 2012 AFCON tournament as a whole—a showcase for the best African football has to offer—was undermined by its poor football and low crowds. Sadly for all concerned, it was far from a study in progress.
Said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger during the tournament, as per Arsenal.com:
I felt that two things have been disappointing—the overall quality of some of the games, and the attendances. To see a semi-final for the Africa Cup of Nations between Ivory Coast and Mali and see nobody there, you wonder what has gone wrong.
It wasn't helped by the notable absentees. South Africa, despite all the advantages of hosting the 2010 World Cup, failed to qualify (albeit by misunderstanding the rules). There was no sign of Cameroon or Nigeria, either—the two beacons of African hope from the 1990s having lost their way and suffered a fall from grace.
Jonathan Wilson, writing for the Guardian, wondered if this meant African football was getting stronger, or had simply levelled out in a valley of "mediocrity" as a result of its biggest hitters fading out. Wrote Wilson in January 2012:
The positive spin is that there is a greater breadth of talent in Africa than ever before, that there are now a couple of dozen decent sides and that success isn't restricted to the usual five or six nations. When we heard that before, in 2006, it was only half true. Perhaps this time it is, but the fear must be that the apparently increased competitiveness of African football is less to do with the rest rising than with the big sides collapsing, that this isn't Progress, but a descent into mediocrity.
Fast-forward 12 months, and the 2013 African Cup of Nations—back again so soon after a decision to switch the biannual tournament to odd-numbered years—offers a chance for fresh shots of hope to emerge.
South Africa get to play hosts again and, having put on the greatest show on Earth in the summer of 2010, should have everything in place to make it a logistical success. On January 9, Insideworldfootball reported 300,000 of the 500,000 tickets had been sold, which is hugely positive news.
In terms of the standard of play, the 16 competing teams will arrive with their FIFA world ranking as follows: Ivory Coast—14, Algeria—19, Mali—25, Ghana—30, Zambia—34, Tunisia—45, Nigeria—52, Cape Verde Islands—69, Togo—71, Morocco—74, Angola—84, Burkina Faso—89, Niger—105, Congo—109, Ethiopia—110, Namibia—121.
The FIFA rankings are far from an exact science, but these numbers would suggest we'll be low on quality in South Africa and short of a genuinely world-class team. If that's the case, let's just hope the African nations can make up for it in entertainment.
If the 2012 edition is anything to go by, surprises are guaranteed. Zambia defied their ranking as the 71st-best team in the world to triumph against Ivory Coast in the final. There were more shocks in qualifying for this year's tournament—the most notable being Cameroon getting knocked out by Cape Verde Islands.
Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, who lost all three of their group matches at the 2010 World Cup, will miss a second successive AFCON and appear to have lost their roar. World Cup 2002 quarterfinalists Senegal will also be absent in South Africa, after a riot broke out in their playoff match against Ivory Coast (Guardian).
The reputation of African football continues to be blighted by violence and scandal. Reports of match-fixing in the buildup to the 2010 World Cup (Daily Telegraph) threaten to cast a dark cloud over the host nation's operation, while a 2008 report by the Guardian highlighted the trafficking of young players in Africa.
These kinds of problems cannot be solved by the success of African nations on a global stage, but putting on a well-organised festival of football at AFCON 2013 is the bare minimum African football needs to achieve to start heading in the right direction again.
A continent needs hope, and renewed reason to believe one of their own may one day rule the world.