Football fans across the continent have had a week to digest the latest failures of African teams at international tournaments following Nigeria and Senegal’s untimely elimination. Africa’s wait for a first World Cup
continues and we are left to contemplate the recent short-comings in Russia.
It feels as if we have taken two steps forward and one giant leap backwards since the Black Stars of Ghana were on the brink of becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup during the 2010 showpiece in South Africa, only to be cruelly denied at the death by Luis Suarez’ handball. Fast-forward four years and for the first-time ever there were two African teams in the knockout stages of the competition thanks to the heroics of both Algeria and Nigeria.
Now as the world watches on in Russia 2018, with the round of 16 having just wrapped up, there was not even one African outfit present – something that has not happened for 36 years since the 1982 FIFA World Cup held in Spain, when merely two weeks ago the entire continent held high hopes of repeating the outstanding feat achieved four years ago in Brazil.
Egypt had qualified for the first World Cup in a generation and spearheaded by Liverpool’s shining star, Mo Salah, they were expected to contend for one of the top two spot in Group A that contained Saudi Arabia and the hosts Russia – the two lowest ranked teams in this years’ edition. They were joined by North African neighbours Morocco and Tunisia who were making their first appearances at a World Cup since 1998 and 2006 respectively but were drawn in tough groups against top European opponents. Nigeria had a young, vibrant squad that were eager to build on the foundations laid by their predecessors four years earlier while Senegal were making just their second showing on the world stage after they remarkably bowed out in the quarter-finals when they first took centre stage way back in 2002.
From 15 group stage matches, we have three wins, two draws and a whopping 10 defeats to show for our combined efforts. I have spoken to and listened keenly to various people on the matter and have heard everything from VAR (Video Assistant Refereeing), to the FIFA fair-play rule
or even the lack of a ‘real’ creative central midfielder being the cause for concern and the root of Africa’s footballing problems. While all of these are fair points that could be addressed in another article altogether, I strongly feel that our failures stem quite simply from a lack of ambition – a psychological mindset that we need to collectively work past, rather than a physical limitation that needs to be overcome.
Let me explain.
Nigeria, needing just a draw against Argentina to progress to the last 16 in consecutive tournaments, fought back brilliantly from a goal down but with the game level at 1-1 and roughly 15 minutes to play, the West African giants panicked. Their game plan which had fared so well and allowed them to create more than enough opportunities to put the game to bed, went out the window and the familiar ‘long-ball’ tactic that is so synonymous with African football reared its ugly head. All this does is keep handing possession back to the opposition and invite unnecessary pressure. Against a top team like Argentina, or any other side in the World Cup for that matter, they will take their chances when they come, and it showed.
Three of those 10 defeats happened right at the death with goals coming in the 89th
minute or later as was the case with Egypt vs Uruguay, Morocco vs Iran and Tunisia vs England – all in the first round of matches when it appeared that the Africans were willing to settle for a ‘precious’ point rather than pushing on for the all-important victory, and it came back to bite them. The Atlas Lions had to endure more stoppage time heart-break, after twice leading in the match, as Spain scored in the dying moments of their final group match to secure a dramatic 2-2 draw and deny them victory.
There were a further two occasions where sides from the continent failed to capitalise on their superior standings. Senegal too twice threw away a lead against Japan and had to settle for a share of the spoils when it hindsight, those three points would’ve made the vital difference while Egypt ultimately lost out to Saudi Arabia in their final group game as they ended the tournament winless. Nigeria’s win over Iceland and Senegal’s opening day 2-1 success against Poland all proved to be in vain while Tunisia’s come-from-behind win over Panama on the final day was too little too late as they joined their fellow Africans on the flight home.
Of the 125 players who made the final squads for the World Cup, only 20 of those are actually playing their football in Africa – less than 20%. A staggering 56,8% of these players (71 from 125 total) are playing in the top seven leagues in Europe (England; Spain; Germany; Italy; France; The Netherlands and Turkey) so there is little doubt as whether or not we as African’s have the technical ability to be classed as equals on the international stage. We can compete with the very best in the world at any given time as the likes of Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal proved, however, there seems to be some frailty that creeps in to players minds when faced with challenges that world-class icons such as Messi and Ronaldo represent.
There is the unassuming reason why these players are at the peak of their powers with the world at their feet – they are willing to fight for it all till the very end and will settle for nothing less than the best. Its time we as African coaches and players give ourselves ‘permission’ to express ourselves fully. We must learn to identify our limitations and play to our strengths as the iconic Spanish and German sides have done in the recent past. In reaching the UEFA Champions League final with Liverpool, players like Salah and Mane have shown that we can set our sights on greater things and hopefully crown another African Ballon d’Or winner or a world Champion or two in the near-future.
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