/ 29 June 2018

Africa’s promise still unfulfilled

Odion Ighalo despairs after Argentina knocked Nigeria out of the World Cup.
Odion Ighalo despairs after Argentina knocked Nigeria out of the World Cup.

Nigerian friends Kweku and Kwame are forlornly sipping their draughts a few minutes after the final whistle. They may be sitting in an upmarket African fusion restaurant in Rivonia but their attitudes reflect an entire continent. Failure crosses all divides.

A few minutes earlier, a poorly marked Marcos Rojo had pounded in a half volley to confirm the downing of the Super Eagles. It was a level of ruthlessness that even the illustrious players across the pitch, think Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho, couldn’t replicate.

“We all know, when it comes to the World Cup, Africans go and they don’t do very well,” Kwame remarks. “This needs to change; they need to go to at least the semifinals. We have got five African teams in the World Cup; at least two need to move forward.”

It’s something that millions of fans between Cape Town and Tunis can’t understand. Why do we trip whenever we trek on to the international stage? Why can we only list a trio of quarterfinal appearances as the height of achievement?

The players are there. We have seen some of the world’s best emerge from this continent — the Didier Drogbas and Samuel Eto’os who have gone abroad and dragged their sides to European glory. Infrastructure, history, support; all of these are available in varying quantities.

But nothing was on display for Egypt, the first African team to play at this World Cup.

Entertaining dreams that this was their year made the crash harder when Russia and Uruguay thumped them out, before Saudi Arabia had the chance to embarrass them further.

Thesaurus pages come up empty when looking for a word to describe how awful the Pharaohs have been at the World Cup. Tutankhamun be damned, someone else has placed a curse on this team. Two group stage appearances since 1934 … that’s it. The same team that, in recent memory, dominated three African Cup of Nations in a row. A country that has two titans of the club game — Al Ahly and Zamalek.

Before that run it was Tunisia who won the continental competition. They too have never been past the first round in five attempts. This year’s charge was characteristically bad: a brief siege attempt against England aside, the North Africans showed nothing to suggest we should feel sorry for their early exit.

Morocco did give us a little promise but it came too late. Khalid Boutaïb’s pillaging drive from centre field against Spain was the type of hunger we have missed from the five African representatives. It’s as if once the manacles of pressure were wrenched away we got to watch a true representation of Hervé Renard’s work.

“It’s totally disappointing. I’m lost for words,” Kweku sighs. “This is about mental strength, being able to control the game. We saw what Germany did. A few seconds to go they were going to be out but they had that winning mentality. That is what we need to learn from. We shouldn’t belittle ourselves or think that we are not capable. Once we have reached that level we should know what it takes to be winners.”

In 2018, only Senegal has given us an argument that they’re not there to make up the numbers. That’s a depressing sporting plight, given the talent pool available. Whether the fault lies with the coaches, the players or someone else, the powerful units are not congealing every four years. The question remains: What can be done to reverse this glitch of football history in 2022?