It’s time for that quadrennial question: can an African side finally leap the cobweb-draped quarterfinal hurdle at this World Cup? This time around, most African football experts would answer the question with a rueful shrug. The football power of Africa is at a disconcertingly low ebb. And Senegal, the continent’s most credible contenders to reach the quarter finals, have been dealt a horrible blow by the withdrawal of Sadio Mané due to injury.
The other four sides – Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia – have one or two or three truly elite players each but their supporting casts are not strong or coherent enough to prevail against the far more balanced sides they are likely to meet in the round of 16. That’s even assuming they get past the group stage.
These are hard and hurtful facts because we have waited long enough to break this barrier. Thirty-two years have passed since Cameroon came within minutes of reaching the semifinals, only to be edged out by England in Naples. And 12 years have passed since Ghana came within a crossbar (and a toothy Uruguayan’s hand) of doing the same in Rustenburg in 2010.
And it hurts even more when you consider the background of many of the most scintillating young prospects at this tournament: England’s Bukayo Saka; Portugal’s Rafael Leao; Germany’s Jamal Musiala and Youssoufa Moukoko; The Netherlands’s Cody Gakpo; Canada’s Alphonso Davies; Spain’s Ansu Fati and the French trio of Eduardo Camavinga, William Saliba and Aurelien Tchouameni.
All supremely gifted, all of African or part-African descent, and all playing for non-African countries at this World Cup.
As Africans, we are not in a position to complain about this. These prodigies are all representing the countries they were born in and primarily identify with; the countries that gave them the education and structures their rich potential deserved. Their genes and their names and their dreams are not copyrighted by their continent of origin. They are representing. We should celebrate them.
But it is fair to ask why the continent is not producing Sakas or Musialas or Gakpos of its own: tactically and technically complete young players. Or to put it another way, why is Africa no longer producing George Weahs, Kolo Tourés, Abedi Peles or Lucas Radebes? That was a generation of ready-made superstars, born and raised and polished in Africa, who arrived in Europe more or less equipped for the pinnacle of the game. These days, if a talented African player doesn’t leave Africa as a teenager, when his talent is still fluid and malleable, then his prospects of hacking it in any of the big leagues are dim.
The best route now is that of Mohammed Kudus, Ghana’s brilliant, 22-year-old Ajax Amsterdam starlet, who first arrived in Europe at 18, joining Nordsjaelland from the Right to Dream Academy. By the time he’s 24, he will be employed by a superclub.
European talent pipelines are now remorselessly vigilant and efficient, thanks to the ever-rising technical standards of youth coaching. US and Gulf money is flooding into the game, financing a revolution in data analytics. As a result, there’s no room for gambling on rough diamonds, because there are too many smooth diamonds for clubs to find, refine and select from. There are notable exceptions, like Kudus, but as a rule, African development systems are not polishing African diamonds.
And young African players’ increasingly narrow doorway to the ground floor of the European game is already starting to show in the declining African representation up in the penthouse suite. During the peak epoch of elite African talent, between 2006 and 2010, over a dozen African stars were dominating at the highest level. Consider this sparkling list: Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba, Joseph Yobo, Emmanuel Adebayor, Michael Essien, Seydou Keita, Freddie Kanouté, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mahamadou Diarra, Benni McCarthy, Asamoah Gyan.
But the present generation of African players of similar dominance is about half the size: Mané, Mohamed Salah, Achraf Hakimi, Riyad Mahrez, Thomas Partey, Kalidou Koulibaly, Victor Osimhen. They are just as good as their predecessors, but there are far fewer of them, especially the cohort hailing from sub-Saharan Africa.
Back in those halcyon days of the post-millennium, African national associations did covet the diaspora talents that were starting to choose European national shirts. But the big West African associations were also adept at striking back by securing the allegiance of a string of exceptional European-born players of African descent — Kanouté and Aubameyang being notable diaspora returnees. But even that pool is shrinking. The eligible players in that elite bracket are now more likely to hold out for a call-up to their European national sides. It takes a big dose of patriotism to be happy to lose your lucrative club place in the middle of a season to appear in an Afcon tournament, or devote regular weekends off to the hard yards of qualification campaigns, often played in tough conditions.
That said, a trip to the World Cup finals is still a tasty inducement and Ghana coach Otto Addo has found two solid new recruits. Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams was born and grew up in Bilbao (that first name sounds very African but it’s actually Basque), while Brighton fullback Tariq Lamptey is a former youth England international who has seen the long queue of brilliant English fullbacks and made an understandable decision to be a Black Star.
Cameroon coach Rigobert Song has also gone shopping for diaspora talent and did well to recruit the dynamic Brentford forward Bryan Mbeumo, who was born and grew up in France. And Morocco’s campaign rests largely on the excellence of Spanish-born Hakimi of Paris St Germain, and the Dutch-born attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech, whose struggle to impose himself at Chelsea belies his prodigious talent.
A new and welcome shift is that African coaches like Addo, Song, Senegal’s Aliou Cissé, Tunisia’s Jalel Kadri and Morocco’s Walid Regragui are being entrusted with their countries’ World Cup dreams. They will bring a detailed sensitivity to their players’ worldviews, and they are surely more committed than the rotating cast of European carpetbaggers who used to pick up World Cup assignments a few months before the tournament. (No disrespect intended to those genuinely committed and productive European denizens of African national-team dugouts — legends like Claude Leroy and Hervé Renard.)
Perhaps this investment in homegrown leadership will pay off spectacularly for one of the five sides. At the last World Cup, Senegal were excruciatingly edged out of the knockout rounds on fair play points, with Japan progressing instead. Cissé is lucky to have a second bite at the cherry. And he brings massive experience and diplomacy to the task he faces.
Every World Cup has a shock in it and the weirdness of the setting and timing of Qatar 2022 could make those shocks bigger. Let’s hope so.
But football is economics and football is geopolitics. For as long as Africa remains an exporter of raw talent, rather than a manufacturer of balanced brilliance, World Cup glory will remain a giddy dream.