Could this be Africa's time to shine?
Five ambitious teams are in Brazil with the goal of becoming the continent's first World Cup semifinalists.
Pelé, the king of football, has made some odd predictions ahead of World Cup finals. He memorably predicted once that an African team would win the World Cup before the turn of the millennium. In 1998, in France, though, Nigeria’s Super Eagles were Africa’s sole representatives in the knockout phase and Denmark subsequently steamrollered Bora Milutonivic’s outfit, which included Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Celestine Babayaro, 4-1 in the round of 16.
In 2010, Bafana Bafana failed to survive the group stages, a first for a World Cup host, but Africans’ hearts were truly broken when Ghanian striker Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty after Luiz Suarez’s handball on a chilly night at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium. The Black Stars were only the third African team, after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002, to have reached the quarterfinals, but they faltered in the penalty shoot-out against Uruguay. Ghana could have become the first African team ever to compete in the semifinals of a World Cup.
Will the African representatives muster a solid challenge this time around in Brazil? They will be keen to shake off the stereotype that African countries are simply not equipped to compete at the very highest level.
The days of Zaire’s infamous 9-0 defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia in 1974 are long gone. Last year Roy Hodgson, England’s coach, said that the African nations may do better in Brazil than the Europeans. Can they really? The same five countries that joined hosts South Africa in 2010 have qualified for the finals in Brazil.
Cameroon lost their three group games in South Africa and unfortunately the omens don’t bode well for the tournament in Brazil, where the Cameroonians have to face Mexico and Croatia, as well as the hosts, in Group A. The Indomitable Lions’ lucky break against Togo, who had three points deducted for fielding a suspended player, characterised Cameroon’s lacklustre qualifying campaign.
German coach Volker Finke, a Freiburg coach for 16 years, tries to organise his team around Alex Song and Enoh Eyong, two excellent midfield holders. Samuel Eto’o spearheads the front line. His stormy character might disturb the much-needed tranquillity within the Cameroon camp and spoil their slim chances of emulating Roger Milla’s achievement in 1990.
Nigeria, Cameroon’s neighbours, are mildly optimistic about progressing beyond the group stages. The reigning African champions disappointed last year at the Fifa Confederations Cup, winning just a single game – against tiny Tahiti.
The Super Eagles will fancy their chances, though, against Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran in Group F. “Big Boss” Stephen Keshi fields John Obi Mikel in a far more advanced position than at Chelsea in a 4-3-3 formation. Recalling the versatile Peter Odemwingie might prove to be a masterstroke.
Nigeria transition quickly from defence to attack but find it harder to dictate play when in possession. Yet Keshi’s troops should be accomplished enough to clinch second place in the group behind Argentina.
Keshi’s team eliminated the highly favoured Côte d’Ivoire last year at the Africa Cup of Nations. At five successive continental championships the Elephants were favourites, but they never got hold of the main prize. It earned Côte d’Ivoire the tag of “chokers”. The team perennially underachieve, but paired with Japan, Colombia and Greece in modest Group C, their fortunes might change in Brazil.
The World Cup will be Didier Drogba’s swan song. He leads the Ivorians’ front line with Salomon Kalou and Gervinho in wide roles, but Drogba’s talismanic presence is increasingly being challenged by Swansea City goal poacher Wilfried Bony.
Sabri Lamouche, at 42 the youngest coach at the World Cup finals, swears by a 4-3-3 formation and thus faces an interesting choice. But the Frenchman’s real worry is in defence, where Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora, all ageing, could be a liability. If Côte d’Ivoire can address these defensive frailties, their attacking prowess might ensure that the country’s so-called génération d’orée (golden generation) finally succeeds.
Ghana, the Ivorians’ abiding rivals, still feel bitter about their painful elimination at the hands of Uruguay in 2010, but the Black Stars are desperate to make amends – and they don’t lack self-confidence. Coach Kwesi Appiah boldly claimed that Ghana are setting their sights on becoming the first African side to make it to the semifinals of a World Cup.
A reality check might be in order for Ghana, as the draw put Appiah’s team in what is arguably the group of death with Germany, Portugal and the United States. Ghana boast an experienced midfield with Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari. Essien, with his box-to-box runs, and Muntari were rampant in a famous 6-1 destruction of Egypt in the World Cup play-offs, which boosted their confidence.
Ghana’s weakest link is at goalkeeper: Adam Kwarasey, playing at Norway’s Strømsgodset, and Fatau Dauda, a part-timer at Orlando Pirates, are vying for the number one spot, but both are far from world beaters. Nonetheless, Ghana should be able to give a good account of themselves in this tough group.
Algeria is the only Maghreb country representing Africa at the World Cup. The Fennec Foxes seek to deliver on their potential at last. After a disappointing campaign in South Africa, Algeria have improved rapidly.
They qualified from a group with Mali, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, and are currently ranked 22nd in the world and first in Africa.
Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic employs a formation somewhere in between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-3-2-1, in which Madjid Bougherra marshals the defence, Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb offers protection in the midfield, and Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli both provides and scores goals. In Group H, with Belgium, South Korea and Russia, Algeria will try to qualify for the round of 16 for the first time in their history.
Pelé‘s prediction, in all likelihood, remains somewhat utopian for the time being. For now, the African teams will want to avoid the debacle of the South African World Cup, where only Ghana made it into the knockout phases. If they do so, this World Cup will be deemed a success for the continent.