By Bolaji Douglas
As at the time I am typing this report the 2018 World Cup in Russia is at the quarter final stages with all the 5 African countries representing Africa Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal and Nigeria already sent packing because of their inability to make it past the first round. The 2018 edition of the world cup promised so much for Africa and her representatives and such expectations are not out of order in the light of what has been steady progress made in the last 2 decades. The lot of Africa has progressively moved from being mere numbers, a position where just being there only to serve as the whipping teams for the football super powers.
From the 1990 edition in Italy when the Roger Milla led Cameroon defeated Argentina the defending champion only to bow out at the quarter finals to England. This was followed by Nigeria’s strong showing at the 1994 edition hosted by the USA, one which saw the Nigeria’s Super Eagles emerged as the leader of Group D, ahead of Bulgaria and Argentina, only to lose narrowly to Italy the eventual runners up. Nigeria repeated the same feat in 1998 in France, once again emerging as the leader of group D, having beaten Spain in one of the best matches played in the tournament. Fast forward to 2002 in South Korea/Japan, it was Senegal’s turn to do Africa proud, doing so by beating the then defending champion France only to lose out at the quarter final stages to Turkey.
And in the 2010 edition hosted by South Africa, it was the turn of Ghana to fly the African flag, coming so close but short of Africa’s first semi-final berth at the World cup by a few seconds and a painful penalty miss in the final seconds of the extra time, only to lose out to Uruguay after the penalty shootout. The 2014 edition was hosted by Brazil, two of the five African countries made it past the first round, the first was Nigeria who went on to lose to France in the second round. The second team was Algeria, who performed so well and losing in the extra time of the second round to Germany the eventual winners.
One can therefore forgive the African fans for their high expectations and feeling of being short-changed in the ongoing World Cup, our attendance records at the World cup have since changed, we are no longer there to keep appearance, we have become creditable participants. For many followers of the game in Africa, it is time the African teams start to stake legitimate claims to the title. Whether such optimism is misplaced is subject to debate, but what the followers of football could not stomach and are struggling to come to terms with is the performance of her representatives. With all the teams eliminated in the first round, it was a bitter pill that left a bitter taste in the mouth of many followers across the continent. This to many was a step backwards, a regression and in some circles, the standard of football on the continent came up for scrutiny, with some even going overboard by suggesting that the spots allocated to Africa be reduced.
What exactly went wrong with the African representatives? Before going on to try to answer the question, there is the need to perhaps nip in the bud the notion that the standard of football in African has regressed and her progress at the world stage has become stagnant. Only those who are ignorant of the history of African football at the global level would subscribe to that notion. And such will be doing so by ignoring how far Africa has come, from being just one the teams that shows up and leave without making any impact. The truth is right from the 1982 World cup, there has been a seismic shift in the role of Africa’s representatives at the world cup, just 8 years before that Africa’s sole representative Zaire was the laughing stock at the 1974 edition, when she was trounced by the then Yugoslavia by 9 goals to nil on the back of some comical display by the Zairean players. In 1982 Algeria beat Germany soundly and it only took a controversial collusion with Austria to edge Algeria out of what would have been Africa’s first second round qualification. Cameroon the second representative did not lose any match in her group which had Italy the eventual winners and Poland who came third.
The truth is there has been a steady progress one which has seen what was once a huge gap in tactical and technical ability and prosecution of matches reduced to very thin margin of errors, one which the African teams would have to overcome to move on to the next stage. The days when the pairing of African teams with teams from Europe or South America had only one outcome appear to be receding into the horizon, and lazy pundits who continue to subscribe to such punditry are being made to look silly before their audiences. The mere fact as African fans, that we even dare to believe we should be challenging for the World Cup is a testimony that Africa football is progressing.
While it is tempting and perhaps easy to to use the inability of the 5 representatives to make it past the first to hastily arrive at the conclusion that Africa’s rise to the top has stalled, such in my humble opinion is simplistic and shallow. Rather I would advise that the performance of each team in each game be closely analysed to be able to arrive at a more insightful and meaningful conclusion.
Of the 5 African teams, only Egypt failed to make any impact, losing all their 3 matches including the game with Saudi Arabia. Their ordeal could be explained by what befell their main star Mohamed Salah, whose world cup participation was placed in jeopardy by the shoulder injuries he sustained a few weeks before the World Cup. Although he made it to the World Cup, he was not able to play in their first and perhaps most crucial match against Uruguay. Coupled with a few other political distractions going around the team, it was no surprise why they came short. Egypt needed a fully fit Salah, he was their talisman, the team was built around him and unfortunately for Egypt without him, they had no one else to turn to.
Looking at performance of Morocco, one cannot help but feel sorry for them. First, they were placed in a very tough group which had Spain and Portugal. Morocco played both of these team’s hands down, losing to Portugal by a lone goal in a match they should have worn if they were clinical in front of goal to put away the numerous chances that came their way. They drew 2-2 with Spain in a game they should have won if the officiating did not choose to be controversial in favour of Spain. The team earlier had lost its opening match to Iran by conceding an own goal in the last minute of the game which they had under control. The Moroccans came short not for lack of effort, nor because they were outplayed in all of their matches, they came short simply because they were not clinical enough in front of goal. The technical and tactical ability was sound enough and would pose a serious challenge to a number of European teams as shown against the European champions Portugal and Spain.
The last time Tunisia made it to the world cup was in 1978 and she made an impact beating Mexico 3-1 and held the defending champion Germany to a 0-0 draw. In Russia they were not a strong team, main area of their weakness being in the attack. They stood their ground against England only losing in the final minutes of the game. Although they were no match for the Belgians, but then the Belgians are one of the strongest and favourites to win the tournament. Tunisia went on to beat Panama to place third in their group. I want to believe they have enough positive things to take away from the tournament which they can use to make their teams better in the future.
Nigeria came to the World Cup with what is the youngest team of the tournament and found themselves in a tough group had Croatia, Iceland and Argentina. Her first match from the tactical point of view was a mistake but one which she recovered from with an emphatic win over Iceland to set up a thriller against Argentina. In a match where she only needed a draw and one she could and should have won but which she lost on the account of three key events in the match. The first was a legitimate penalty that was controversially denied, the second a couple of gilt edge chances that were fluffed, the most obvious being the one Ighalo threw away with net gaping at him but he somehow managed to screw the ball wide. The third was the painful goal she conceded in the final minute of the game when a momentary lapse in concentration was preyed upon by Argentina.
If Nigeria came so close to making it out of a group that was deemed a group of death, then spare a thought for Senegal who had it going so well for them in the group that saw them pitch their ability against Poland whom they beat 2-0. And then Japan a game which they should have won but one which was poorly managed which ended in a 2-2 draw. In their last match against Colombia, they dominated the match alright but could not make their domination to count. And they were punished in the second half from a corner kick. Together with Japan they ended up with 4 points apiece, but were edged out on the account of having accumulated more yellow cards.
Looking at all the matches these teams were involved in especially Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco, the African teams were not overawed, the matches were keenly contested and the technical ability as well as the tactical approach towards the matches could hardly be faulted. These teams played against the best teams in the world in their respective groups and they stood their grounds against them. But there are a couple of areas where the African teams fell short and these they would have to address going forward.
1. Game management remains one area that left the African teams short. Nigeria conceded an avoidable late goal against Argentina, in a game where a draw was needed. Tunisia having done a great job holding England at bay by her clever possession play, lost the game through the antics of a defender who had the opportunity to clear the ball to safety but opted for a silly route which led to a corner from which they lost a match they had no business losing. Egypt conceded a last-minute goal to Uruguay from a set piece off a senseless and unnecessary foul conceded in a dangerous area. Morocco lost to Iran in a similar way giving away a senseless freekick. If you cannot defend from set piece, the most sensible thing is to minimise putting your team in the situation.
2. Ruthlessness in front of goal remains an issue. Watching Senegal huff and puff in games where she had total domination cries for something to be done. Watching a defender Rojo calmly and clinically slot into the Nigerian net off a difficult cross while the Nigerian striker carelessly fluffed an easier chance, makes one to question not only the technical ability, but also the mental attitude and toughness of African players. At this level and especially in this tournament it is those finer details of the game that separates the winners from the losers, the ability to make every chance that comes the way of your team to count. Nigeria had more chances than Argentina 4 against Argentina’s two, Argentina took her two chances while Nigeria fluffed 3 of hers.
3. Perhaps the third point is one for CAF to ponder upon and make a strong representation to FIFA to review. As controversial as this might sound, FIFA needs to review the officiating of matches involving African teams. There appear to be a preconceived notion about African teams, the notion that Africans are only physical specimen who do nothing but intimidate other players with their physical prowess. The enthusiasm with which fouls are blown against African teams while similar fouls are ignored makes one wonder if the match officials handling the matches are not stereotyping African players. Such becomes obvious when African players are kicked blue and black with no protection from the officials, perhaps even more bewildering is that when there is a 50-50 challenge, the African player is more likely to be seen as the offender more than the victim. At this level of the game every advantage counts. That is why some team do everything to get these advantages, freekicks, corner kicks, throw-ins and penalties. There is no reason why Nigeria was denied the second penalty, there was none, at all. Not when a day earlier a lesser foul was deemed a penalty offence. Morocco had legitimate calls for VAR review overruled, while for lesser incidents the same officials did not hesitate to call for the use of VAR. Yes there are inconsistencies in the application of the rules of the game, but such Africa should not be consistently at the receiving end of such inconsistencies.
As African’s representatives return from Russia, these are some of the points worth taking on board as the journey towards Qatar 2022 begins, these are the lessons that our future representatives must take away from Russian 2018