It’s a good thing Pelé hasn’t predicted an African nation doing well in this year’s World Cup, which starts on June 12 in his homeland. The Brazilian legend’s predictions have had less accuracy than a drunkard’s piss. Among his wayward predictions was his declaration that an African nation would win the World Cup by 2000.
Fourteen years later, no African nation has come close to being world champions. The quarterfinals ceiling – where Senegal were eliminated in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 – continues to stifle the continent since Italy 1990, where Cameroon were the first African nation to reach the last eight.
That dismal run isn’t because the continent doesn’t have talent; far from it. African players dominate Europe to a point where Ivory Coast’s Yaya Touré and Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon were at one point the highest paid footballers in the world. The biggest stumbling block has come from management, where coaches have been changed by a whim, in some cases just a few months before the World Cup. In the last edition on the competition, the first on African soil, Ivory Coast, hosts South Africa and Nigeria – half of the six teams representing the continent – changed their mentors at the 11th hour.
It’s a trend that has gone for some time – since 1998 when South Africa found Clive Barker, the man who had helped them qualify for their first World Cup, not experienced enough to lead the nation in France. In 2002 Carlos Queiroz was thrown in the same waters as Barker by the South African Football Association after booking Bafana Bafana a place in South Korea and Japan. Four years later, Togo thanked Stephen Keshi for guiding them to their first ever World Cup by giving him the boot for an “experienced coach” right before the start of the tournament in Germany.
“As a former coach myself, it is a concern,” said Zambian Football Association president and former Chipolopolo coach Kalusha Bwalya. “We have seen what happened with Togo in 2006 – after Keshi helped them qualify for the World Cup, they fired him. Also in the last World Cup in 2010 we had almost half of the teams changing coaches at the last minute. This time we are looking a bit better. Hopefully we can have representatives in the quarterfinals and one team in the semifinals. In 2010 we were too complacent that, ‘Ah, we are playing in Africa at home; we have the support. We didn’t make it count.”
But this time African teams have a good chance of making it count. The five men at the helms – Algeria’s coach Vahid Halilhodžić, German-born Volker Finke leading Cameroon, Ghana’s Kwesi Appiah, Ivory Coast mentor Sabri Lamouchi and Nigeria’s Keshi (the man who coached Togo to qualification for the World Cup in 2006) – who guided Africa’s five representatives to the tournament will be in charge when it starts on Thursday.
A day after the opening match, the Indomitable Lions will start their campaign against Mexico in a group that also features Croatia and hosts Brazil. It’s a challenging group, but the new-look Cameroon team could sneak past in second place. The German mentor is a disciplinarian, which is needed in the combustible Cameroon changing room, but he also allows the players freedom to express themselves. That was evident in their demolition of seven-time African champions Egypt to book a place in Brazil.
The Elephants of Ivory Coast, for a change, aren’t in the group of death like they have been in the two previous editions. Greece, Colombia and Japan complete their group. This is the last chance for the Elephants’ golden generation to make an impact on the world stage with their star-studded line-up. And although Ivory Coast’s star might be fading, Nigeria’s is just starting to shine
The reigning African champions are starting to hit their stride with a relatively young team that is hungry and looking to return the Super Eagles to the soaring heights they once occupied. They have to negotiate their way past a group against Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran, where second place is achievable. But Ghana had no such luck in the draw.
The Black Stars are grouped with Germany, Portugal and USA. “Our group is very difficult. It has been described as the group of death, but I see it as a group of life,” said Ghana Football Association president Kwesi Nyantakyi. “We have been in a similar situation like this where in 2006 we were grouped with USA, Czech Republic and Italy. Czech Republic were ranked number two by Fifa then and Italy were six, while USA were ninth. We were very far from them. We braced ourselves and made it into the second round. I believe that history will repeat itself and we will be in the second round.
Algeria complete the African contingent in what will be their second successive appearance, fourth overall, in the global showpiece. The Dessert Warriors will have to negotiate their way past a tricky group that consists of Belgium, Russia and South Korea to advance to the next round
The biggest advantage, apart from retaining the coaches who helped these nations qualify for the World Cup, is that they go into this tournament without their energy being sapped by the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). The Afcon has been moved to odd years so as not to fall in the same year as the World Cup.
Algeria’s coach Halilhodžić must be among the mentors who favoured this switch. The Bosnian would have led the Elephants in the 2010 World Cup had the outfit not lost out to Algeria in that year’s Afcon. A two year unbeaten run before his first defeat in charge – a run that helped Ivory Coast qualify for the World Cup and Afcon – couldn’t help Halilhodžić keep his job. Such lack of foresight has been among the issues that have hindered progress for African nations on the world stage. Good governance, planning and dealing with issues of bonuses have also been factors. But none of these ugly trends have reared their heads this time around.
The teams’ good standing in the run-up to this tournament has been achieved through continuity, but there are still some strides that need to be made. Who knows – the 73-year-old Pelé might get to see an African nation crowned world champions in his lifetime. The seed has been planted and should bear fruit in Brazil, Russia or Qatar.
Pic Credit: Nigerian fans celebrate their victory of being the 2013 African Cup of Nations champions by GCIS