x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

African nations showing they can upset the odds

After Egypt upset football's natural world order with victory over Italy in the Confederations Cup the onus now is on South Africa and Iraq to show the gap between the traditional powerhouses and the up-and-coming nations below them is shrinking.

Spain's Fernando Torres loses out in a tackle against Iraq.
Spain's Fernando Torres loses out in a tackle against Iraq.

JOHANNESBURG // After Egypt upset football's natural world order with a remarkable victory over world champions Italy in the Confederations Cup the onus now is on South Africa and Iraq to strengthen the premise that the gap between the traditional powerhouses of the sport and the up-and-coming nations below them is shrinking.

The process has already begun with Fifa's decision to award South Africa the 2010 World Cup finals, a breakthrough which administrators hope will persuade future generations of African players to play for their homeland rather than adopt a European country, as players such as Ghanaian Marcel Desailly did with France. It has continued at the Confederations Cup where South Africa, ranked 72 in the world, have not only hosted a successful tournament but are on the verge of reaching the semi-finals as they prepare to take on European champions Spain today. Italy suffered their first defeat in 15 matches against African opposition thanks to Mohamed Homos's headed goal.

Iraq, too, have made their mark. Their controlled and disciplined performance against Spain, in which they lost only 1-0, was hailed as one of the tactical triumphs of the tournament and left coach Bora Milutinovic encouraged ahead of today's game against New Zealand which his team must win well to progress. "You have to know to where you are and who you are," he said. "Normally a match is like life, you need to use vision, mathematics. In the first game in a tournament it is important not to lose, in the second it is important to get the best result. Now we have to finish our work against New Zealand."

The mathematics for qualification remain complicated. If the hosts draw or win against Spain they are through but if they lose then Iraq can qualify by beating New Zealand, depending on goal difference. With South Africa having a goal difference of plus two and Iraq on minus one both could end with identical records - leaving the drawing of lots as the only way to separate them. For Spain, the situation is simpler. They are already through to the semi-finals and their focus is on matching Brazil's world record of 35 unbeaten matches. "It's good to get more records. But we must continue to improve because all the teams know us a little bit more now and defend a lot," said the winger Albert Riera.

"You could see against Iraq it's really difficult to play against teams when they do that." chatherall@thenational.ae