x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

African qualifiers quintet dream big at Brazil World Cup 2014

The representation of qualifiers – Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria – not have changed since 2010.

Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has been pivotal in helping his side reach the World Cup finals in Brazil, where they will be determined to show they are the best African team. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has been pivotal in helping his side reach the World Cup finals in Brazil, where they will be determined to show they are the best African team. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Africa does not really do quiet years. But in the four that have passed since the continent hosted its first World Cup, there have been seismic events.

There was the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions whose impact was felt far from the south of the Mediterranean.

There were significant obituaries. Africa’s most recognised individual, Nelson Mandela, whose last major public appearance had been at the 2010 World Cup final in Soweto, died in December last year.

A month later, perhaps the most important global pioneer for Africa’s most popular sport, Eusebio, died, amid national mourning in Portugal, where he had lived most of his life, and in his native Mozambique.

Eusebio lit up the World Cup in 1966 as the holder of the Ballon d’Or award.

Although the political atlas of his time meant he was representing the imperial state of Portugal rather than his birthplace, Mozambique, which had not gained independence, his talent encouraged a vision of the future in which Africa might dominate the sport.

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The former England manager, Walter Winterbottom, predicted then that an African nation, many of whom gained sovereignty in the mid-1960s, would win a World Cup within the 20th century. Pele, of Brazil, would many years later make a similar forecast.

It never happened.

There is little anticipation that a championship can come within the first two decades of the 21st century, either.

Six months ahead of the 2014 World Cup, only one African footballer made the 23-man shortlist for the 2013 Ballon d’Or.

The excellent Yaya Toure may well make that shortlist again in 2014, but his loneliness as the sole representative from his continent on that podium might suggest Africa’s impact on global football is at a low ebb.

Scroll through the countries arriving in Brazil from Africa and the reaction might also be that the elite level of the game there is stagnating.

Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are the same five qualifiers who joined hosts South Africa at the 2010 tournament. Only one of the six made it through the group stage.

Peer beneath the surface impression, though, and Africa’s football hierarchy seems far from sterile.

Unhappily, for South Africa, the logic of economics might does not dictate football prowess: their national squad will not be in Brazil.

But their 2010 tournament spread some Fifa bounty across the continent, in terms of direct investment in good pitches and expert training of coaches.

Whether or not as a consequence, there is plenty of reason to believe that international football across Africa has become more competitive in recent times.

Some sign of that emerged in Abu Dhabi six months after the World Cup in 2010, when TP Mazembe, a club from war-torn DR Congo, became the first Africans to reach the final of the Fifa Club World Cup.

That was not a fluke.

Last December, Raja Casablanca, of Morocco, reached the final of the same competition, a tournament historically set up to pitch Europe against South America in its showdown fixture.

Pan-African hierarchies have shuddered, too.

Burkina Faso finished second at the 2013 African Cup of Nations; Zambia won the event, for the first time, in 2012.

Cape Verde made the quarter-finals on their debut.

The Arab Spring produced stirring football stories as well as disturbing ones: Libya defied the practical and emotional challenges of civil war to qualify for the Cup of Nations two years ago.

But, for Egypt, the best national team in Africa this century, the consequences of unrest were damaging. Its forceful league went into suspension for a year.

The national squad, champions of Africa three times between 2006 and 2010, saw their previous swagger dismantled, most painfully in the 6-1 defeat by Ghana in the first leg of their play-off for Brazil 2014.

Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon have fallen short against the might of Egypt in recent years, while Algeria were the side who prevented Egypt reaching the 2010 World Cup, over a series of ugly encounters.

As for Nigeria, they re-adjusted the African hierarchy last February, with victory at the Cup of Nations, returning that trophy to the continent’s most populous nation after a 17-year gap.

The Super Eagles intend to hold on to that status and show the World Cup they have Africa’s biggest, loudest voice.

Algeria lack potency

Vahid Halilhodzic, the coach, pictured, is overdue a full appearance at the World Cup finals. As a player, he missed out on qualifying for the 1978 tournament with his native Yugoslavia in a cliffhanger of a match, the notorious battle of Belgrade, in which Spain defeated their Balkan opponents. In 1982, he made it to a finals, but never in the starting XI. As coach, Halilhodzic guided Ivory Coast through the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, successfully, and could not hide his disgust at being replaced by Sven-Goran Eriksson before the finals.

The most pressing concern for Halilhodzic, who has experience across French, Moroccan and Balkan club football, may be a lack of potency up front in his Algerian squad, which failed to score at South Africa 2010. The task in Group H looks daunting: South Korea are seasoned World Cup campaigners; Belgium are tipped for a long tournament; and Russia’s manager Fabio Capello, who was in charge of England four years ago, will be determined his current team are not left as frustrated by Algeria as they were in 2010.

Cameroon dreaming

The Indomitable Lions will forever have a starred place in Africa’s World Cup history, for the stunning feats of Italia ’90: the shock victory over Argentina in the opening fixture; Roger Milla, at the age of 38, coming out of semi-retirement to eliminate Colombia; the lead they took but could not quite hold against England in the quarter-finals. The regularity with which Cameroon qualify for World Cup finals must be set against their overall record once there – they failed to escape the group stage in ’94, ’98, 2002 and 2010.

The signs are hardly promising this time. Cameroon failed to reach the finals of the 2012 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and progress to Brazil was fraught, too, only overcoming Tunisia in the final stage thanks to the goalkeeping of Charles Itandje. Between the two legs, Samuel Eto’o, the captain, complained that his teammates were not passing to him enough, threatened to retire and then changed his mind. “You have to dream big,” Eto’o, pictured, says of Cameroon’s chances in a group that includes Brazil, Croatia and Mexico”.

Ghana mean business

As Asamoah Gyan, the Al Ain striker, pictured, made clear in his interview with The National this month, there is a sense of unfinished business that is driving the Black Stars. Deprived of a place in history, as the first African semi-finalists at a World Cup, by Luis Suarez’s cynical handball for Uruguay on the goal-line in 2010, they will carry that heartbreak to Brazil as a motivating tool. The squad has plenty of witnesses to that night still in it.

Behind the exciting trio of Andrew Ayew, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gyan, coach Kwesi Appiah can call on the experience of veterans Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, of AC Milan, and the skilled Kwadwo Asamoah, of Juventus. The defensive resources, though, look a little more raw. Ghana’s group – Germany, Portugal and the United States – is a great deal tougher than in 2006 and 2010. But with Brazil 2014 likely to be a swansong for Essien, and perhaps also for Muntari and Gyan, there is a desire, among this talented generation of players, to make a more substantial mark.

Ivory Coast look ahead

In Brazil, Didier Drogba, pictured, will make his final bow for Ivory Coast at a major tournament, but the country is banking on a new generation of strikers to drive them past the first round. Drogba, 36, led his country to the past two World Cups and five successive African Cup of Nations finals, but he is in the twilight of his career after scoring 62 goals in 100 appearances. Instead, Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, Lille’s Salomon Kalou and Roma’s Gervinho provide other options as the dependency on Drogba has dissipated during the past 18 months.

A seamless transition from an ageing generation of charismatic players, including Kolo Toure, brother Yaya and Didier Zokora, to a group of emerging talents is what coach Sabri Lamouchi is hoping for in Brazil. Lamouchi says the Ivorians aim to advance past the group stage, where their opponents are Colombia, Greece and Japan in Group C. “The Ivory Coast have not done this before and, after that, once you are in the knockout rounds, there is a feeling that all is possible,” he said.

Nigeria can take wing

The Super Eagles hit on a successful formula to win their third Africa Cup of Nations last year, with quick transitions from defence to attack. They have a terrific goalkeeper in Vincent Enyeama, who has had a fine Ligue 1 club season overseeing Lille’s strong defence. If Emmanuel Emenike finds form and fitness up front, they have a powerful spearhead. Coach Stephen Keshi, a former Nigeria captain – he was known as “Big Boss” then – seems to have instilled a solid group ethic among his players.

He has established his key lieutenants but not been afraid to give opportunities to younger footballers from the Nigerian domestic league. If Keshi coaxes the creative best out of Mikel John Obi – who had a subdued last six months with Chelsea – and Victor Moses, pictured, a marginal contributor to Liverpool’s season, Nigeria will be the stronger for it. Progress from the group phase, where they stumbled in 2010, looks feasible, with a game against Iran to open and a key fixture against first-timers Bosnia to follow before they face Argentina.

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