While Pele’s oft-quoted claim that an African nation would win the World Cup by the new Millennium was proved false long before the year 2000 rolled around, I am encouraged to believe that we may not need to wait much more until one of the continent’s sides brings the golden trophy home.
In this piece, I identify five key reasons for optimism and suggest why I feel fans of African nations can perhaps expect prosperity before the year 2023—thus, over the next three World Cups.
On three occasions, African teams have advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals, but the promise of Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana has crumbled as the glow of a place in the final has loomed large.
Each time, the devastation of failure has been tempered by the suggestion that the continent’s talent was developing and that following tournaments would see a genuine improvement. There had been optimism that the three aforementioned nations would kick on and build on their relative success.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the case, and none of the three have matched their magnificent efforts; the relentless impact of ageing, the upheaval and disarray of national federations and an enormous turnover of coaches have seen these generations fall away and drift into the abyss.
Nigeria’s recent Cup of Nations triumph, the encouraging recent form of Egypt and the promise to be found among Cote d’Ivoire’s potential Golden Generation replacements suggests that there is reason for optimism.
If one of these continental giants can ally sage stewardship with squads brimming with talent, then maybe one of Africa’s traditional powerhouses can build on the work of their predecessors and become the continent’s first international champions.
The World Cup is often perceived as a bit of a closed shop. It is usually the same suspects who end up troubling the latter stages, competing for the ultimate prize. The only ‘first timers’ in the final since 1974 have been Spain and France, both of whom had previously won the European Championship.
While the usual pre-tournament favourites usually emerge from a small cabal of previous winners plus Holland and Portugal, I believe that the days of traditional heavyweights dominating the competition are coming to an end.
Recent failings of Italy, France and Argentina have given confidence and belief to the second tier of nations, and the margins between the traditional powers and ‘all of the rest’ are becoming smaller.
I would also suggest that the ‘Big Boys’ are not so proud beyond their traditional heartlands; the next three World Cups, those between now and 2023, will see FIFA’s centrepiece move away from some of the key axes of the game.
When the World Cup went to East Asia in 2002, the tournament was memorable for its giant killings; France, Portugal and Argentina all fell at the first hurdle, while Turkey and South Korea were unlikely semifinalists.
Could a move to other unreached territories—Russia and Qatar—produce similar scenes and give rise to an unlikely victor? Perhaps an African nation could capitalise from disorientation among the big boys, and maybe a move to alternate venues could lead to victory for an outsider.
These days, African sides are littered with players who have made their way through the academies and youth setups of major European sides. In fact, many of the teams present at the recent Cup of Nations featured stars who had previously turned out in the youth sides of Europe’s major nations.
This was how I once identified the benefits that this can bring to Africa:
The updating of FIFA’s nationality laws, and an increasing trend among international coaches to draw players from national diasporas, are also contributing to improving talent basins for nations traditionally perceived as smaller. African nations can now enlist players previously capped at U21 level for European or other nations, and many are reaping the rewards, now able to involve players with a genuinely excellent grounding and education in the game.
Serge Gakpé and Alaixys Romao, both former French youth team talents, are currently bolstering Togo’s attacking options, while the likes of Youssouf Mulumbu, Parfait Mandanda, and Landry Mulemo are enforcing the DR Congo despite having previously represented European youth sides.
The same is true of Africa’s upper-middle class; Algeria’s squad of the last 3 years has been riddled with players who were educated in France, several of whom had represented the nation’s youth sides. Morocco’s current squad features Oussama Assaidi, who chose the Atlas Lions after having represented Holland, whilst Younés Belhanda, so admired across Europe, was once in France’s U20 team.
Following Stephen Keshi’s monumental recent success with Nigeria, the manner that he proved himself adept not only at man management but also tactical decisions and player development, the stock of the African coach is high.
African nations have historically been hesitant to trust indigenous coaches with their national sides on the world’s greatest stage; the 2010 World Cup saw the likes of Lars Lagerback and Sven-Goran Eriksson drafted in to lend professionalism and experience to African teams.
The experiments have largely failed, and there is a sentiment that European coaches have endured a disconnect with their players, federations and fans.
Following his Afcon triumph, Keshi highlighted the dearth of homegrown coaches, testing their ability at the highest level of continental competition. Perhaps Keshi’s status, and the scale of his recent success with Nigeria, will give African federations the confidence to back their local managers.
Could this renewed faith in local managers enable African sides to get the most out of their undoubtedly talented squads? Perhaps men like Keshi, like Cape Verde boss Luis Antunes and South African Gordon Igesund, could find glory for their nations on the international stage.
Keshi’s recent Cup of Nations triumph with Nigeria was forged with a youthful squad laced with talented players. What these men lacked in experience they made up for in vigour and ability, and they proved their worth as the Super Eagles made their way to the final.
Keshi dropped a number of the nation’s big-name players to make way for the youngsters, and they vindicated his decision; the manager’s call meant that the likes of Peter Odemwingie didn’t trouble the mood with his temperament, but there were no adverse, on-field consequences of his absence.
I hope that Naija’s success gives other national managers the confidence to not be afraid to back youth and place their faith in the promise of the continent’s youngsters.
Should Egypt qualify, then they might be able to benefit from the likes of Abdallah Yaisien and Mohamed Salah. Similarly, Cameroon can boast two ready-made successors for Samuel Eto’o in Jean Marie Dongou and Fabrice Olinga.
Personally, my heart remains with Nigeria—and I am thoroughly excited about the prospect of the likes of Victor Moses, Kenneth Omeruo, Ahmed Musa and Godfrey Oboabona taking on the world’s finest over the next few years.