Earlier this month my colleague Joe Tansey wrote a feature, Imagining the Impact of a United States World Cup Win. With the fervour surrounding World Cup qualification and the road to Brazil festering like never before, now felt like an appropriate time to write an equivalent piece examining the potential impact of a triumph by an African team on the globe’s grandest stage.
As my article develops, I will explore why I believe the key consequences of any such victory would be felt predominantly at a national level or a supra-continental level, rather than for the continent as a whole, introspectively.
I must admit, from the off, that I don’t think that an African victory is likely anytime soon—at least not in 2014. Over the last 20 years, various groups of players in Africa have emerged and looked like contenders to trouble those at the top table.
One by one they have wilted and faded to nothing.
Both Egypt and the Cote d’Ivoire have had their "Golden Generations." The Pharaohs enjoyed a miraculous level of continental triumphs during the last decade, but consistently failed to carry their terrific African form to the global arena.
At least the Cote d’Ivoire made it to two World Cups, but their star-studded rosters struggled, ultimately failing to escape from two exceptionally menacing group pools.
Cameroon and Senegal have both had their memorable moments at the high table—in 1990 and 2002, respectively—but the West African pair have suffered due to chronic instability, meddling federations and political intrusion. Neither team has been able to build on its previous successes.
South Africa, the continent’s great hope following the end of apartheid in the early '90s, have stagnated following early successes and are already out of the running this time around.
Ghana’s successes at youth level in 2009, when they won both the African Youth Cup and the FIFA U-20 World Cup, prompted untrammelled optimism, but so far that particular crop of prodigies—containing the likes of Dominic Adiyiah, Andre Ayew and Emmanuel Badu—is yet to make a consistent, positive impact at senior level.
Finally, Nigeria, potentially Africa’s powerhouse—certainly based on population and exported talent—have also suffered from instability and political interference. The team has too often been used as a device for officials to impose themselves and has, at times, become the laughingstock of the continent.
Some of the aforementioned nations have already enjoyed their moment in the sun on the world stage. Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana all enjoyed tantalising runs to the quarter-finals, only to be cut down—in the Black Stars’ case, unfairly.
I don’t envisage any of these sides reaching the promised land of the World Cup final next summer, but perhaps in a tournament or two’s time, with some stable cultivation and not an insignificant slice of fortune, maybe one of these names could once more whisper that long-forgotten dream.
If an African nation were to win football’s biggest prize however, I envisage the key consequences would have at best indirect consequences on the broader continent.
Tansey argued, at length, that in the United States, football needs success to remain popular in the eyes of the broader populace. He maintained that a victory for the USA at the World Cup would boost the sport’s popularity in the country, whereas sustained mediocrity would only lead to football’s continued second-class status among other American sports.
In Africa, football will remain king.
It will do so whether the World Cup’s final four are all African nations, as it does today, following so many years of great expectations and abject disappointments. The sport is so ingrained among the general population, since its days as a colonial novelty and a tool of the governing classes, that it has developed to be the culture of the people and the sport of the everyman—and its popularity will not fluctuate along with the swirling fortunes of its national sides.
The Global Dynamic
On a broad scale, an African victory would, in my opinion, smash the glass ceiling that exists in the world game.
The response will be the same regardless of whichever continent produces the first non-European, non-South American winner. The two continents have dominated the truly elite end of international football throughout history, and a victory from another region, be it North America, Asia or Africa, will surely alter the game’s power dynamic.
Such a triumph would generate enormous prestige for the victorious federation, would likely give them a greater foothold in the power game that dominates international competition and could imbue the other "lesser" footballing continents with the courage and confidence to go toe-to-toe with the "big names" of the world game.
Japan’s naive and respectful display against Italy in the Confederations Cup earlier in the summer was an example of football’s deeply ingrained power dynamics being played out on the pitch. Despite the Italians’ evident weaknesses and the attacking prowess of the Japanese, the East Asians seemed to treat their glorious opponents with too much reverence.
A Return to the Motherland
Recently, more and more African players have been ignoring the advances of European nations to play for the continent’s sides—the lands of their origins, their parents and their ancestors.
Considering purely North African nations, the likes of Adel Taarabt, Abdelaziz Barrada, Younes Belhanda, Zakaria Labyad and Ryad Boudebouz have all decided to turn out for Maghrébin sides rather than hold out for illustrious European names.
Cameroon and Senegal look to be winning the battle to recruit Jean Marie Dongou and Mbaye Niang, respectively, in light of the temptations of Spain and France.
However, despite this, the continent is still haemorrhaging talent to Western nations.
Look at Belgium. The current Diables Rouges side contains numerous players with African roots. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli (both Morocco), Moussa Dembele (Mali), and Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Ilombe Mboyo and Vincent Kompany (all DR Congo) are all, in principle, eligible to represent sides on the continent.
The example of Switzerland and Albania/Kosovo shows the dangers of one country effectively draining the talent of another; it is a constant issue facing many African nations.
I suspect, however, that a World Cup victory of an African nation, for example, would encourage players of the Diaspora tempted by European sides to consider, more strongly, the advantages of throwing their hat in the ring with the land of their ancestors.
I doubt Guineans would be watching on in anguish as Paul Pogba and Joshua Guilavogui go on to build their international careers with the French national side had they won a World Cup and made another final in the last 15 years!
Ultimately, No "One" Africa
Beyond this, I believe it is hard to accurately predict any broad continental change.
The key reason for this is that Africa is so large, so diverse and so hard to forecast, that the impacts of such a victory on one area could not definitely be expected from another.
African expert and Director of the Royal African Society Richard Dowden states that there is no "one" Africa," and indeed, the continent contains such disparate, diverse and distinct cultures, populations and mentalities that it would be unrealistic to confidently forecast a clutch of sweeping generalisations.
While the responses of individual nations could possibly be analysed and forecasted, I close by considering one aspect of football in Africa and envisaging how a World Cup victory would affect this feature.
Football as a Force for Unification
The history of the sport in Africa is littered with examples of football as a unifying factor both in times and contexts of conflict and peace.
It’s hard to deny that football enjoys an amazingly complex, incredibly powerful relationship with geopolitics. The Nigerian Civil War was suspended in 1967 when Pele travelled to Lagos to play. A 48-hour ceasefire was agreed upon in order to let both sides appreciate the Brazilian’s myriad of talents.
Similarly, the Ivorian conflict of 2002-2007 was halted due to the requests of the Ivorian Football Federation; President Laurent Gbagbo responded to football’s pleas and recommenced peace talks, almost exclusively because of the team’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup. That was simply a qualification—imagine the impact of a World Cup victory.
The Arab Spring that has recently swept across North Africa provides us with numerous examples of football’s power to unite disparate populations.
Libya’s success in qualifying for the 2012 Cup of Nations was born from an increased sense of responsibility and the immense symbolism of sport, while the actions of Ahly and Zamalek Ultras during the Egyptian uprising showed how warring groups can combine to combat a common foe and prompt political change.
I have little doubt that a World Cup victory for many of Africa’s multitude of nations would help forge the sense of national unity and togetherness which is so often lacking among disparate communities within artificial national structures.
Oh, and there would be a party…one, big party!
Get in touch on Twitter to chat about African football and the continent in general: @Eddydove