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African teams at the World Cup: a tale of knockouts

Sunday 1st July 2018

FIFA hosted its first major tournament in 1930. No African nation was willing to fund a Football Federation let alone the long-distance trip to Uruguay. Many weren’t even interested in football at the time. That notion changed quickly. Four years later, an African country was competing at the World Cup. If modern civilization started with Egypt, so also did Africa's history in the World Cup.

The Pharaohs set a bad precedent for Africa at the World Cup. They were sent packing after one classless display against Hungary in 1934. Africa should’ve heeded the warning sign. Considered perpetual underdogs, FIFA limited slots for Africa and Asia to just one. No African team participated in the World Cup after Egypt until Morocco in 1970. Like their northern neighbours, the Atlas Lions were ousted at the first hurdle after losing twice and drawing once.

1982 – 2014: never beyond the quarterfinals

In 1982, the World Cup was remodelled into a 24-team tournament. Africa was given two tickets. Algeria and Cameroon stepped up to represent the continent. Both were booted in the first round. Despite the early elimination, Africa gave a good account. Cameroon left the competition unbeaten while Algeria was painfully and marginally knocked out despite beating West Germany and Chile.

Four years later, Algeria was back on the big stage, this time alongside Morocco. The Desert Warriors failed to win a match. In contrast, it was a memorable tournament for Morocco, who became the first African nation to reach the World Cup knockout stage. West Germany awakened them from the illusion of a possible quarterfinal appearance.

Then Cameroon shone in 1990. Led by the legendary Roger Milla, at 42 the oldest player at the tournament; the Indomitable Lions reached the quarterfinal. England provided the insurmountable barrier. The Cameroonians lost the battle of the Lions 3-2 after extra-time.

There was one more extra-time defeat for another African team in 1994. After impressing during the group stage, debutants Nigeria held their nerve until Roberto Baggio stuck a knife in their backs. There were two other African teams at that tournament, Cameroon and Morocco. Both were out after the first round.

With the World Cup now a 32-team tournament from 1998, there was an opportunity for five African teams to represent the continent. Nigeria, Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa won the slots. All but Nigeria were sent packing after the group stage. The Super Eagles eventually got their marching orders from Denmark, a 4-1 thrashing in the round of 16.

Senegal was a joy to watch in 2002. The Teranga Lions made a remarkable run to the quarterfinals before losing 1-0 to Turkey. No other African side among, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Tunisia made it past their group.

In 2006, the trend of only one African team making it beyond the group stage continued. This time it was Ghana. The Black Stars reached the round of 16 only to be outclassed 3-0 by Brazil.

When Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, thanks to South Africa, Ghana was at the races again, flying Africa’s flag the highest. The Ghanaians reached the quarterfinals. Once more, Africa would go no further. Luis Suarez is still loathed in Accra.

Things didn’t change for the African teams when Brazil hosted the world for the second time in 2014. Nigeria, under the guidance of the late Stephen Keshi, made it beyond the group stage. The Super Eagles went no further, outwitted 2-0 by France. Algeria had the same story to tell after losing out to eventual winners Germany. Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana suffocated in the first round.

The horror show of 2018

Through the long history lesson you’ve been receiving, you’d have noticed that at least one African team had always made it past the group stage since 1982. Not 2018 though. None did.

Five teams made us believe during the qualifiers that they were the best from the sunny continent. They raised Africa’s hopes to the highest possible pinnacle, then cast them into the abyss.

There’s no explaining the fact that after the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, CAF is the only body without a single representative. Even CONCACAF who came with three representatives still has one.

Three of Africa’s flag-bearers – Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, were knocked out after two round of matches. The remaining two, Nigeria and Senegal suffered the same fate after the third. It was especially harsh for the Teranga Lions, who failed to advance on the basis of accumulating more bookings than Japan.

So much can be said about why we couldn’t raise the bar in Russia. It takes nothing away from what has always been the case for African teams: give everything in our hearts, then take four years to let them heal.

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Kingsley Ukpai

Kingsley is a football aficionado who craves to read, watch, play and write about the greatest team sport ever known to man. If you're talking football he'll be keen to listen to what you have to say. Loves to play Fantasy Football too.

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