African teams must do better at the World Cup to maintain credibility
Much was expected from African teams coming to Russia. Historically, they have achieved limited success in the World Cup. Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana have set the bar with quarterfinal finishes. Others, like Nigeria and Algeria, have put up spirited performances that have driven their opponents to the edge but not over.
It took a penalty at the death in 1994 for Italy to come back from a goal down to beat Nigeria. Algeria pushed Germany all the way to extra time in 2014. Despite their performances, they still bowed out in the second round.
Most others have fallen by the wayside. The list includes Tunisia, Morocco, and South Africa. But those who have gone further have raised a continent's hope.
When South Africa hosted the global showpiece in 2010, many believed Africa's time had finally come. Surely a CAF country would lift the trophy on home soil. At the end of the day, only Ghana managed a quarterfinal finish. It was nothing new, except for the country itself.
Four years later in Brazil, none of the continent's representatives could match the Black Stars’ performance.
That said, there is something about Russia 2018 that inspired new hope. There was even talk of an African team going all the way and shocking the world. The qualification process suggested things could be different this time around. Except for Tunisia who went neck to neck with Congo DR, the others swept aside their opposition.
Morocco qualified for Russia conceding a single goal throughout the qualification process. The Atlas Lions had not lost a game in over a year prior to their first match against Iran on Friday. Egypt qualified ahead of Ghana with Mohamed Salah leading the line. Senegal comfortably topped a group that included South Africa and rubbed salt in the wound by beating Bafana Bafana home and away.
At the draw for CAF qualifiers, Algeria were the highest African team in the FIFA World Rankings. Cameroon were newly crowned African champions. Both were in the same group, with Nigeria and Zambia. It was rightly christened the "Group of Death", more so since only one rather than two nations would emerge. Nigeria qualified ahead of the rest with a game to spare. The Super Eagles did not lose a single match during qualification. Expectations were high.
It was therefore a disappointment to watch the first three African nations lose their matches.
Egypt's loss was understandable given the fact they faced an experienced Uruguayan team boasting the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani upfront with Diego Godin at the back. But then why did Hector Cuper keep Salah on the bench when we were made to believe he was fit and ready to play? Second chances are few and far between at the World Cup.
Morocco's loss to Iran, on the other hand, was inexcusable. The North African side controlled the game and was the better team for most of the match. Iran were intent on defending deep while looking to break on the counter. Team Melli were mostly on the back foot. Failure to create and utilise chances kept the contest scoreless until an own goal gifted Iran all three points in stoppage time.
Nigeria's loss was not surprising given their recent form. With three losses [all to European teams] and a draw in their warm-up matches, the handwriting was on the wall. As with the friendlies, Croatia killed the Super Eagles on set pieces.
The danger is African nations are beginning to form a bad habit. Consistent failure has a way of becoming an intractable trend. Continuous sub-par performances at the biggest stage discourage rather than inspire. They kill hope. That is neither good for the continent's image nor the development of its future talents.
Tunisia play a promising but inexperienced England squad this evening. Tomorrow, Senegal opens their tournament and Egypt, hopefully with Mo Salah, take a second bite at the apple against hosts Russia in St Petersburg. Let’s hope all this worrying was for naught.