Africa and the World Cup
Since DR Congo, formally Zaire, made sub Saharan Africa’s first appearance at the World Cup in 1974, the continent has had such a story to tell. Not withstanding their infamous 0-9 loss to Yugoslavia, which drew threats from then president Mobutu Sese Seko, they were once a force in African football. Later, their “descendants” would attend the mundial and record varying degrees of successes and failures.
Roger Milla’s famous corner flag dance is so enduring. At Italia ’90, the “Indomitable Lions” beat Maradona’s Argentina in the group stage, went past Colombia in the round of 16 and were knocked out in the quarters by Gary Lineker’s double penalties in controversial fashion. Four years later in the States, Nigeria’s dream team won hearts but fell short of Cameroon’s exploits.
France ’98 didn’t have much to show for Africa but the turn of the millennium did. The first ever World Cup to be co-hosted, Japan/Korea ’02 became a tale of Senegalese triumph. The “Terranga Lions” beat defending champions France en route to the quarterfinals. El-hadji Diouf and company played scintillating football and won over neutrals. That defeat to Turkey caused tears to flow. Some of those tears were meant for happiness, in honour of gallant warriors who had exceeded expectation.
Germany ’06, and here comes the Ghana story. The “Black Stars” qualified for the first time and were overwhelming underdogs in a group with eventual champions Italy, USA and Czech Republic. Serb Milovan Rajevac’s boys did the unthinkable and qualified alongside the Italians. In a famous game against star-studded Brazil in the second round, Ghana lost 0-3. In their first outing, the Ghanaians became the only African side to make it out of their group.
Africa’s own World Cup came next in South Africa. It was a different feeling from previous ones. Although there were different teams from the continent, you felt the presence of a pseudo solidarity team, at least in the stands. Hosts South Africa and others couldn’t jump the first hurdle. Once again Ghana did. On that faithful night in the quarterfinal with Uruguay, Africa wept. Controversial striker Luis Suarez denied Ghana a certain goal by palming the ball back into play. He was sent off and a penalty awarded. Up stepped Asamoah Gyan, who rattled the bar to cause a sound that still echoes to this day.
Faces were squeezed, bodies were shaken, hearts were broken and souls were crushed at the penalty miss. Shootouts next. Gyan steps up and converts this time but his team would go on to lose. I dare say that if there has ever been an instance in sports when a country has enjoyed resounding solidarity from others it shares a continent with, it must be this. Ghana left the tournament as heroes but with an opponent-inflicted scar that’ll defy healing. Suarez though at that moment, would have opted for space if Ghana was the only place to live in on this planet.
The World Cup’s long awaited return to South America, Brazil 2014 wasn’t to be a good experience for Africa. None could make it out of their group. One major negative highlight was a threat of boycott of games by some teams because of cash entitlements. Overall, it was a disastrous showing for Africa, especially Ghana. You can imagine two Cameroonian players engaged in a heated exchange in a game. It got that bad.
Now Russia 2018. Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal have all failed the initial test. Senegal came close; winning against Poland, drawing with Japan and losing to Colombia. A silly goal conceded against Colombia needs mention – a defender stood by the goalpost in anticipation of a clearance. Shockingly enough, as the ball came to score he held the post with his left hand and his waist with the right and watched it go in, as if admiring it. His posture clearly smacked of a ’70s cowboy womanizer waiting for his girlfriend under a tree.
Africa in the World Cup has been such a story, few successes and many failures. Her best has been a quarterfinal berth, nothing beyond that. You tend to ask if there have been introspections post tournaments. You wonder when that element of inferiority complex is finally going to fade. You try to find out exactly what Africa is lacking. You see the solution right before your nose, yet seemingly faraway.
Yours in the beautiful game