One hand on the Cup

Africa could not have asked for better representation when the continent hosts its first football World Cup next year. With the exception of the reigning African champions, Egypt, Africa’s top-ranked teams have qualified for South Africa.

World number 14 Cameroon will make their sixth appearance at the World Cup—a record for an African country.
The Indomitable Lions join Ivory Coast (19), Ghana (38), Nigeria (32) and Algeria (29) in carrying the host continent’s hopes of lifting the trophy for the first time.

Only struggling hosts South Africa, languishing at 85 on the Fifa rankings, do not appear ready to challenge Europe’s giants and Brazil. Hosting the tournament has given Africa an extra slot, although six nations are still a far cry from Europe’s 13.

Pelé, whose predictions have been a source of ridicule in football circles, could finally have the last laugh, from one of the teams that make up Africa’s six-pack. His confidence in Africa is unshaken despite the continent’s failure to win the World Cup before 2000, as he had suggested.

“If you remember, 10 years ago I started mentioning about how football in Africa will grow and get better and better. Africa gets a lot of players in Europe and they have a lot of experience. With adequate preparation it will not be a surprise to see Africa in the final or the quarter-final at the South Africa 2010 World Cup.

“You can see that at the Confederation Cup: South Africa for the first time [reached] the semifinal and [the] United States [reached] the final. So there are no big teams in football now. All countries are equal. Now we have to respect the developing countries,” Pelé told the Nigerian media in July.

The football legend was dismissed as a politician simply telling his Nigerian audience what they wanted to hear. This appeared to ring true a few weeks ago when Nigeria’s Super Eagles looked set to fail to qualify for South Africa 2010 as Tunisia led the group into the last matches of the qualifiers.

Then a miracle happened. Tunisia suffered an unlikely 1-0 loss to Mozambique and the Super Eagles sneaked to the finals after a dramatic 3-2 victory over Kenya. With the win, the Super Eagles joined Africa’s top nations to confirm their ticket to South Africa next year.

Africa might have a galaxy of stars plying their trade in the best football leagues in the world, but sadly they have not brought the same form to their countries. The quarterfinal place Cameroon managed at the 1990 finals was matched only 12 years later by Senegal.

In Germany 2006 Africa’s hopes hinged on a star-studded Ivory Coast that comprised players such as Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué, Bonaventure Kalou and Kolo Touré. But the African dream was as good as over after Les Éléphants were thrown into the tournament’s group of death, which included Argentina and the Netherlands. They were bundled out in the first round despite coming from 2-0 down to beat Serbia Montenegro 3-2. It was believed that the Ivory Coast side would have gone quite far if they had played in any other group in the tournament.

Africa’s second-best side in 2006, Ghana, thumped the Czech Republic 2-0 and the USA 2-1 to advance to the second round. But Brazil ended the Black Stars’ run, and Africa’s campaign, with a resounding 3-0 win.

The other continental representatives, Tunisia, Togo and Angola, found the going even tougher. With the best of African football confirmed to be on show in South Africa, the continent will hope their teams receive a favourable draw in Cape Town on December 4.

Maybe only then can the continent think of repaying Pelé‘s confidence in African football.

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