(Dis)united Africa stumbles at the start

Africa’s travails at the World Cup have long been a beguiling subplot. Every four years we watch in anticipation that this will be the tournament to go that one step further.

But no movement has been made in that regard since 1990. It’s beginning to feel as though destiny itself wishes to deny us progress.

No other nations get behind their continental neighbours in anywhere near the same fashion. Even the South American countries in that football hotbed arguably see one another more as rivals than compatriots with a shared goal.

This year, however, the notion of a shared African identity has come under scrutiny to a much larger extent that ever before, particularly given that multiple African countries ignored Morocco’s clarion call to back its hosting bid.

Mahfoud Amara, an assistant professor in sport policy and management at Qatar University, has tried to answer to what extent sub-Saharan nations identify with their northern neighbours and vice-versa.

“The general feeling is [that] sub-Saharan Africa may perceive North Africa as a bit distanced, peripherally, from the core of the continent,” he tells the Mail & Guardian. “Maybe in Zambia it is different as football fans over there still have affinity with the coach of Morocco, who won the first African trophy for Zambia.”

READ MORE: Morocco off the Fifa map

Amara argues that many northern regions don’t celebrate blackness in the same way as the rest of the continent. Many of its citizens instead choose to praise their proximity to Europe and appreciate their land as a continuation of Arabic sensibilities.

“I think they are so focused on their national teams for the moment hoping for better results in the next two matches,” he says of North African fans. “There could be more mutual support between the fans of the three teams, hoping that at least one of them can get through the group stage. If one African team can make it through then the dynamic can change for a united African front.”

It took until the last game of match day one for Africa to register its first goal in this year’s World Cup. Idrissa Gueye’s misdirected effort deflected nastily past a wrongfooted Wojciech Szczesny; a flash of catharsis for a frustrated continent.

Senegal’s win over obtuse Poland also brought with it Africa’s first points of the tournament. The other four representatives who took to the field failed in their attempts to begin the race to the last 16 with anything resembling gusto.

After one week we’re left feeling dire over their chances of securing knockout football. Only the Lions of Teranga have scratched hope into the collective flesh of disappointment.

Undercooked Egypt have been knocked out. After infinite hype ahead of the event, Mohamed Salah failed to make an impact against Russia, condemning his team to a second defeat.

They lacked invention in both games, unable to thread passes with any purpose in and around the box.

Even more hapless performances were delivered by Morocco. The Lions of the Atlas lost any realistic chance of qualifying when they fell to Iran on the second day of the tournament before Cristiano Ronaldo ensured their passage out was secured. Tunisia, limp against England, are likely on their way to a similar fate. As for Nigeria — they’ll have to overcome both a stubborn Iceland and a bruised Argentina.

Africa’s longest trip at the World Cup has been to the quarterfinals. Roger Milla famously first guided Cameroon to that stage in 1990 but the feat has remained unsurpassed. Senegal, in their first finals 16 years ago, were denied by a Turkish golden goal. Ghana was blocked by the purposeful handball from Luis Suarez.

Although African identity may not be as unified as some would like, surely the continent will be praying that its representatives recover from a bad start to outsmart destiny this time?

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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