“The small number of seats allowed at the table has greatly impacted Africa’s fight for World Cup success” – Yvens Tiamou
In 1997 the most renowned football player, Pele made a premonition that must’ve sent shockwaves when once orated. However, two decades on, said claim has now been shepherded towards lunacy. Pele stated that an African team would win a World Cup by the year 2000, and that was the end of that chapter. Pele’s claim should not be binned so hastily. His clairvoyance just needed a trip to the opticians, and his calculations just needed a bit of reworking; because an African team will win the World Cup, some day. Though, there are several mires that must be crossed in order to achieve this success.
African teams have been close, yet so very far during their pilgrimage at World Cup tournaments. The 2002 World Cup saw Senegal defy the odds in their first ever finals tournament by reaching the quarter-finals stage, surprisingly beating defending champions France along their travels. This only matched the previous achievement, the darlings of the time, Cameroon reached back at World Cup 1990. The image of Roger Milla shaking his hips at the corner flag should ring through our minds.
The Ghanaian side of the 2010 World Cup was probably the most impressive African team to attempt to ascend the boundaries. They were cruelly dumped out of the quarter-finals with the help of a pair of South American hands and a few missed penalties. It wasn’t exactly the ‘Hand of God’ that Diego Maradona had showcased at the 1986 World Cup, but Luis Suarez came close to replicating this iconic feat. Ghana lost on penalties, and since then, African teams have been allergic to the quarter-finals and beyond.
As a continent, Africa has 53 countries all competing to get to the World Cup, but there are only five places available. Europe receives 13 places. The small number of seats allowed at the table has greatly impacted Africa’s fight for World Cup success, as there has never been more than one African team qualifying for the last 16 at a time, at any World Cup. The small allocation has also had a knock-on effect on several African stars missing out on representing their countries.
You all remember George Weah don’t you? Weah was the one and only African player to win World, European as well as, African Player of the Year, though his Liberian side were unable to qualify for a single World Cup during his reign. The margin of error at these tournaments is relatively small for African teams, yet it is not entirely impossible to tread towards victory. A series of steps must be laid down so the path for African teams is less perilous and more fruitful.
One trait that is predicated around African teams is the solidarity of a very vibrant community. The strength of family and togetherness is so well traced back, that it is etched – with a gentle hand of calligraphy – in the DNA of all Africans. Despite the low number of participants at World Cups, African teams have notoriously always put on a show. The camaraderie of the players marries well into song and dance, as well as the fans following their teams, cladded in their country’s native colours and attire.
However, gone are the times – I should hope – where the sole purpose of Africans is to entertain for the wider masses. This isn’t a circus anymore, thus, this ebullient style emitted must turn into something substantial or they’ll be at risk of making waste of future golden ages, just like Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast, Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon and Jay-Jay Okocha’s Nigeria came and left like the season.
Another step that must be repaved is the inferiority complex that African teams chronically suffer from. A self–fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy. There have been many occasions where African teams have settled into the prophecy expected of them at World Cup tournaments. ‘Underdogs’ and ‘whipping boys’, are just some of the labels attached to African teams, labels that insidiously spreads the fire of inferiority. Chile was once seen as underdogs. They were once seen as the little sibling that wasn’t allowed to play with the much older and stronger brethren, Brazil and Argentina, but they climbed out of that sunken hole, and into our conversations for tournament favourites.
As it would happen, Cameroon were elected to participate at this year’s Confederations Cup, a reward for winning the 2017 AFCON title, and it was during their opening match against Chile that created the premise for this article. The general consensus was that Cameroon were the huge underdogs against a Chile side that were once the giant killers who then became giants themselves, yet I believed that Cameroon could surprise this tenacious South American team. It was a belief that was not shared amongst the Indomitable Lions – eventually succumbing to a 2-0 defeat.
Cameroon were physically better than the Chileans, and as the game waned towards the last 10 minutes, Cameroon’s endurance still provided that perennial lease of life – an advantage that Chile were used to being on the end of. But yet again, the inferior mentality crept in, and Cameroon fell back into place that allowed them to be most vulnerable and penetrable.
The mentality of African teams can be stabled with solid foundations, however, the biggest hurdle that impedes the progress resides off the pitch. The political dismay that shrouds the beauty of this continent heavily affects its national teams – not just in football. Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo side had their team bus ambushed by gunshots in 2010. There has been a constant problem of money issues that has marred the joy of representing your country on the pitch. These monetary issues have seeped into other sports, such as athletics.
Segueing into a positive step, the increase of African-born players choosing to play for their birth countries as oppose to playing for European countries can be seen as a positive light. Recently, Wilfried Zaha decided to choose Ivory Coast over England. Alex Iwobi opted to represent Nigeria. Africa is slowly gaining back its power, as the allure of Western society has lost some of its seduction.
Pele said that an African team would win a World Cup by the year 2000. It didn’t happen, but I think in the next three World Cup competitions, Pele’s slow-burning claim will surely start to bear its fruit.
Words by Yvens Tiamou