Africa dreamt and achieved at the World Cup


Morocco has been the pacesetters for Africa at the Mundial, they were the first African country to top their group in the World Cup and qualify for the knockout stage at Mexico 1986.

36 years later, Morocco became the first African country to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup again in the entire 92 years history of the competition.

Morocco shocked the world by first of all beating Belgium in their second group game, a side that has never lost to an African opposition in the World Cup, before topping the group ahead of the European giants and 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia.

In the Round of 16, they faced Spain who were expected to end Morocco’s run in the World Cup but they turned out to be a casualty to the North Africans as they set an unwanted record with their feeble penalty-kicks in the shootout.

Portugal stepped forward in the quarter-finals but did not also find answers to Morocco’s effective and defensive tactical approach and technical discipline. Youssef En-Nesyri’s outrageous header in the 41st minute, sent Portugal crashing out of the World Cup and history was made for Morocco and for Africa.
Never before had an African country reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, this was the first time.

The run by the Al-Magrib side was put to a stop by Didier Deschamps’ French side in the semi-finals after they suffered a painful 2-0 defeat despite seeing much of the game and possession of the ball. The job was not done yet as they were left with an opportunity to win the bronze medal and become the first country from outside Europe and South America to win a medal at the World Cup. They faced Croatia in the 3rd place playoff game, having already locked horns with the Croatians in their group opener and played goalless.They were unable to grab the chance and fell to a 2-1 defeat which meant they finished 4th without a medal but 4th place out of 32 nations is not bad going forward and can be improved with the quality of players at their disposal.

Nevertheless, African footballing talents have in the past and present captivated spectators and earned the admiration of the global footballing fraternity with their skills, flair, aggressiveness and commitment on the field of play.

The players have always been hailed, applauded and congratulated for their thrilling contribution to the beautiful game of football with the likes of Roger Milla, Kalusha Bwalya, Abedi Ayew Pele, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Adebayor, Asamoah Gyan, Nwanko Kanu, Sulley Ali Muntari, Victor Ikpeba, Raba Madger, Michael Essien, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Hakim Ziyech just to mention but a few making names for themselves.

However, when some of these players got the opportunity to play in the World Cup, they fail to make significant impact as a team. Partly due to coaching instability and inappropriate appointments coupled with interference from FAs, have denied African teams the familiarity and cohesion that comes with managerial stability devoid of unnecessary interferences.

Meanwhile a couple of them have shown greatness and glimpses of greatness in the World Cup when they had the opportunity to play when the need arose. With the good old Roger Milla in 1990 and 1994, El Hajj Husseini Diouf and Asamoah Gyan of Ghana can be put in the same category although he is seen as a hero and a villain at the same time in his country.

Africa as a continent is blessed with talents and these players have shown how good they can be, week-in-week-out in top European Leagues. France won two World Cups while having prominent and key stars born in Africa or born of African parents in their team, which is a testament that Africa has got the talent. However, the reasons above have contributed immensely to Africans abysmal performance at the World Cup.

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The FIFA World Cup also referred to as the Mundial is a global football showpiece organized by FIFA every 4 years with the very first edition in Uruguay 1930. Egypt became the first African country to participate in the World Cup in Italy 1934 where they lost their first game 4-2 to Hungary with Abdul-Rahman Fauzi scoring both goals for Egypt. Things didn’t go well for Africa in the early years of the World Cup and Africa had to boycott the tournament at a point in order to get the recognition they deserve.

Africa boycott in 1966

No African country qualified for the World Cup again until 1970 in Mexico when Morocco qualified, that was after Africa had boycotted the tournament in 1966 in protest to FIFA’s ruling that required the 3 second round winners from the African World Cup qualification zone to enter a playoff round against winners of Asia in order to win a place at the finals. Africans felt that winning their zone alone is enough to merit a qualification for the World Cup and due to this, Africans decided to pull out of the World Cup until at least one African team had a place assured in the World Cup: which happened only after the 1966 World Cup.

The boycott in 1966 paid off and Africa was awarded a slot at the finals in Mexico 1970 when Morocco became the second African country to also qualify for the World Cup.

Zaire also qualified for the 1974 World Cup becoming the first Sub-Saharan African country to reach the finals, setting an unwanted record of losing by one of the greatest margin in the history of the competition, 9-0 against Yugoslavia and conceded 14 goals in just 3 matches without scoring even a single goal.

Africa’s first ever win

In 2010, Gyan missed a penalty in extra time to deny Ghana a place in the semi-finals

In the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Tunisia became the first African country to win a game at the Mundial, defeating Mexico 3-1, losing  1-0 to Poland and drawing 0-0 with West Germany ensured that they failed to qualify from the group stage after amassing only 3 points.

The 1982 World Cup in Spain saw the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams. This allowed Africa to present 2 representatives, Algeria and Cameroon qualified with Algeria playing in the World Cup for the first time, they produced one of the greatest World Cup upsets on the first day by beating the then reigning European champions West Germany 2-1. They beat Chile too 3-2 and had a chance of qualifying for the second round only to be denied by controversial result in the last group game between West Germany and Austria where West Germany beat Austria 1-0 and saw the elimination of Algeria from the World Cup.

Algeria had already played their final group stage the day before and were second on the table in contention to qualify to the next round. West Germany and Austria knowing very well that a West Germany win by 1 or 2 goals would qualify both of them. While a larger German victory would qualify Algeria over Austria and either a draw or victory for Austria will eliminate the Germans.

After 10 minutes of all-out attack, West Germany scored a goal and after the goal was scored, the two sides kicked the ball aimlessly around for the rest of the match. Algeria protested to FIFA after the game and FIFA ruled that the result be allowed to stand but introduced a revised qualification system at subsequent World Cups in which the final 2 games in each group were played simultaneously to avoid such occurrence in the future.

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First knockout game for Africa

In the Mexico 1986 World Cup, Algeria having been controversially eliminated in the previous edition, qualified again for the second time running together with Morocco. Algeria earned just a single point this time and got eliminated from the group stage for good.

Morocco on the other hand became the first African country to qualify from the group stage of the World Cup. They topped their group after drawing 0-0 with both England and Poland and thrashing Portugal 3-1 but got eliminated in the Round of 16 by eventual finalist Germany with a 1-0 score line.

For the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Cameroon and Egypt represented Africa. Egypt drew two of their group games, lost one and got eliminated.
Cameroon also topped their group ahead of the Maradona-led reigning World champions Argentina and 1988 Euro runners up Soviet Union. They also caused an upset by beating Argentina who were the defending champions of the World Cup 1-0 on the opening day of the World Cup through Francois Omam-Biyick’s only strike. They went on to beat Colombia 2-1 in the Round of 16 after extra time before narrowly losing 3-2 to England in the quarter-finals. Cameroon’s run was powered by 4 goals from the 38 year old Roger Milla who set a record at the finals as the oldest player ever to score in the World Cup.

Expansion and additional slot 

As a result of the strong performance by Cameroon in 1990, Africa was awarded 3 slots for the 1994 World Cup in USA, with Nigerian joining Cameroon and Morocco in qualifying. Both Morocco and Cameroon crashed out of the group stage, Roger Milla however had a consolation goal for Cameroon in their 6-1 drubbing by Russia in the group stage and broke his own record in 1990 as the oldest player ever to score in the World Cup and set another one, this time at 42 years. A record that stands till date.

Nigeria reached the Round of 16 in their first ever World Cup Appearance and took the lead against Italy only for Roberto Baggio to get an equalizer late in the second half for Italy and forced the game into extra time. Baggio scored again in the extra time and won the game for Italy which sent Nigeria packing.

The 1998 FIFA World Cup in France was expanded from 24 to 32 teams and Africa was awarded 5 slots for the first time: Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon and South Africa all qualified but only Nigeria could progress beyond the group phase, the remaining 4 were all eliminated after the group stage.

When the World Cup was hosted for the first time in Asia in 2002, Cameroon Tunisia, Nigeria, South Africa and Senegal qualified with Senegal making its debut at the Mundial. They were the only country from Africa to qualify beyond the group stage beating defending champions France 1-0 in the first group game. They went on to beat Sweden 1-0 in the Round of 16 before losing 1-0 to Turkey too in the quarter-finals which ended their fairytale run in the tournament. Senegal equalled Cameroon’s record of reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup becoming the furthest an African team has gone in the World Cup.

In Germany 2006, 4 out of the 5 African representatives in the World Cup made their debut at the Mundial; Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast and Angola all making their debut with the exception of Tunisia who were going to the tournament for the 4th time. 4 out of the 5 crashed out of the competition in the group stage with Ghana being the only survivor after the group stage and also got eliminated by Brazil in the Round of 16 after they were beaten 3-0.

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First World Cup in Africa 

In 2010, the FIFA World Cup was hosted on African soil for the first time with South Africa as hosts and by virtue of being host nation, South Africa qualified automatically in addition to the 5 World Cup slots Africa already has. Of the 6 African nations only 3 won any match (South Africa, Ghana and Ivory Coast) and only Ghana progressed out of the group stages.

Ghana went on to knock the USA out in the Round of 16 winning 2-1 after extra time only to be denied a semi-finals berth by a last minute Luis Suarez handball in the quarter-finals. A clash between the West African Giants and the two time world champions Uruguay.

Ghana joined Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) in reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup, the furthest any African country has gone in the tournament’s history.

Glorious wait

The first time more than one African country progressed beyond the group stage was in Brazil 2014. Algeria and Nigeria both qualified from their respective groups but were both eliminated in the Round of 16, 2-1 by Germany and 2-0 by France respectively.

In Russia 2018 none of the 5 African representatives was able to progress out of the group stage, the worst performance since 1986.

With the 22nd edition in Qatar, two out of the 5 African teams qualified from their groups; Morocco and Senegal. However all the 5 won at least a match with Tunisia beating defending champions France and Cameroon handing Brazil their first taste of defeat in the World Cup by an African team being the highlight of the group stage yet both Cameroon and Tunisia failed to qualify from their group. Ghana on the other hand, won against South Korea but lost to both Portugal and Uruguay and also failed to get out of the group stage.

Senegal also lost to the Netherlands in their first group game, won against host nation Qatar and won again against Ecuador to book their place in the last 16. Where they were walloped 3-0 by England. Morocco took it upon themselves to lift the whole Africa and breath the breath of life into African football by becoming the first African country to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.

This has however been long overdue looking at the talents Africa has been churning out and the prospects. A footballing great and one person who is regarded by many as the greatest player of all-time, Edson Arantes do Nascimento Pele predicted in 1977 that, an African country will win the World Cup before the year 2000. But this prediction didn’t materialize even though he still extended it to 2010 it still didn’t work out. How long will it take before that prediction comes to pass? The wait is still on!! But with the performances the African teams produced in this year’s World Cup especially Morocco, Africa is not very far away from winning the coveted World Cup trophy. Africans would prepare for 2026 with hope and optimism that it’s never impossible for an African side to also win and conquer the World.

Writer’s name: Yusuf Hamdani Abdul-Rauf




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