Sports Features of 2014-06-12

Africa and the FIFA World Cup - a historical journey

Africa and the FIFA World Cup – a historical journey
As the World Cup kicks off later today, Africa would have been present in the world’s most popular games every time since the 1970 games in Mexico. Egypt was the first African country to try to qualify for the World Cup finals. For the games held in 1954 in Switzerland, Egypt was the only applicant from a continent whose many territories were still colonies of European powers. Egypt faced Italy. It was “a task that proved well beyond them,” as the records put it. They failed to make it.
Prior to Egypt’s attempt to play at the games, the World Cup was basically a European and South American thing with the USA and Mexico always there. There were no qualifying rounds for the first games in 1930. FIFA invited countries to take part. Many wanted to but did not have the means for the long boat journey to Uruguay which won the right to host the games because it was the only country willing to build a new stadium and host all participants for free.
Africa’s place was bound to Europe’s and Asian’s against whom they had to play a qualifier. In 1958, Sudan took part in the preliminaries beating Syria in the last Group 4 stage. But that was as far as they went. Ghana made its first attempt as an independent country for the 1962 games in Chile. We beat Nigeria (4-2 at home and 2-2 in Lagos) to qualify for the AFC final against Morocco. The first leg ended 0-0 in Accra. The Moroccans won the return game by a lone goal. Morocco then went to a playoff against a UEFA side, losing both legs to Spain to leave Africa with no representative in that year’s World Cup
For the 1966 games, Asia, Africa and Oceania were grouped to provide one representative. North Korea beat Australia to make it. There was no African team. The 1966 games will be remembered by many Ghanaians in my age group because of the numerous pictures of the red-shirted victorious English team that were sent to the Information Services offices that were common in Ghana those days – a carry-over from the Kwame Nkrumah times. One of the English players was full of smiles even though he had lost all his front teeth. That controversial 3-2 English goal in the finals was more a feature of the cinema documentaries that of pictures.
The tournament in Mexico, 1970 was the time Africa was given its own place. In the African qualifiers, Ghana went straight into the Group 2nd Round which we lost to Nigeria (2-1 in Lagos and 1-1 in Accra). Morocco then won the group final round that also included Nigeria and then African Champions, Sudan, to make it to Mexico. Morocco, thus, became the first African country to take part in the World Cup finals. They were drawn in a group with West Germany, Peru and Bulgaria. They lost 2-1 to Germany after leading 1-0 at half time, fell 3-0 to Peru and drew their last game with Bulgaria 1-1. Morocco, thus, became the first African team to both score a goal and win a point in the World Cup.
Africa still had only one place in the 1974 finals in West Germany. Ghana made it to the African Group semi-final stage and came fourth behind Morocco, Zambia and Zaire. It was a home and away game against Zaire whom we beat 1-0 in Accra but lost 1-4 away. The Zairois came ahead of us in the table by a better goal aggregate. The first three teams then went into a final round-robin stage which was totally dominated by Zaire which won all its four matches – both home and away. The Zairois team that represented Africa in West Germany was made up of some of the best players on the continent drawn mainly from two teams – TP Englebert and Vita Club. It included players like Kazadi, Kibonge, Lobilo, Mayanga, Kakoko and, perhaps, the greatest of them all, the legendary Tshinabu. These players had been troublemakers for Ghanaian teams at both club and national level. Ask any old Kotoko fan. But in Germany, they were a great disappointment for Africa. They lost all their games: 0 – 2 to Scotland, 9-0 to Yugoslavia and 0-3 to defending champions, Brazil. In three games, they conceded 14 goals without scoring any. The 9-0 drubbing at the hands of Yugoslavia was a humiliation that did not do the African game any honours at all. Incidentally, that is the only time the country made an appearance at the World Cup.
In 1978 Ghana won the African cup for a historic third time. Ghana played Tunisia in the semi-finals. The Tunisians walked off the field half-way through the match in protest against a goal scored by the Ghanaians. Ghana went on to beat Uganda in the finals. It was the year of Golden Boy Razak. We were African champions again but we had failed to qualify for the World Cup. That honour went to Tunisia. Ghana did not go beyond the group first stage of the African qualifiers. We beat Guinea 2-1 in Accra and lost by the same margin in the return leg. The drawn tally necessitated a play-off which the Black Stars lost 0-2. Our attempts thus ended at an early stage. Tunisia won the final group round-robin stage ahead of Egypt and Nigeria to draw Africa’s lone ticket to the finals in Argentina.
They did Africa proud in Argentina. They drew with defending champions West Germany, lost by a lone goal to Poland and beat Mexico 3-1. This was Africa’s first ever victory in a World Cup. The Tunisian federation was so happy with the team’s performance that they asked the players to stay on in Argentina and watch the rest of the games. But in Mexico, at least one fan committed suicide because the team had lost to an African side.
For the games in Spain 1982, FIFA had increased the participating teams to 24. This enabled Africa to get two places. The Africans wanted more but UEFA, in particular, argued that Africa played too little a percentage of world football! Algeria and Cameroon represented Africa. For each of them, it was the first time. Ghana couldn’t make it. Indeed, we didn’t even take part in the African qualifiers because we were serving a ban. Ghana’s participation was limited to Referee Benjamin Dwomoh who held the whistle in the game between Kuwait and Czechoslovakia. (Dwomoh passed away last year).
Cameroon drew all its matches including one with eventual winners, Italy, but could not make it beyond the group stage. The points system still scored 2 for a win and 1 for a draw. Roger Milla would make his first appearance in the World Cup. He didn’t tuck in his shirt. But for Africa, this tournament will be remembered for the incidence involving Algeria. Algeria beat West Germany 2-1 to become the first African country to ever beat European opposition in the World Cup. Then they lost 0-2 to Austria. Germany beat Chile 4-1 and Austria beat Chile 1-0. The Algerians beat Chile 3-2 in their last match. The German-Austrian match would not take place until the next day. This enabled them to calculate that if Germany lost to Austria by a lone goal both Austria and West Germany would qualify at the expense of Algeria on goal aggregate with all three teams having equal points. So they played to the result they already knew. Algeria protested vehemently. FIFA could do nothing to change things. But it brought a lasting change to tournaments around the world. From that day, the last group matches in all tournaments are now always played on the same day and at the same time. Anytime you wonder how this came about, remember Algeria in 1982.
The World Cup finals returned to Mexico in 1986. Ghana went into the African qualifiers in the second stage where we played a goalless game away to Côte d’Ivoire and beat them at home 2-0. In the third knockout round, we drew 0-0 at home to Libya and lost 0-2 away to them to end our World Cup dreams. Algeria and Morocco won their final games against Tunisia and Libya respectively to clinch Africa’s two places. In the World Cup itself, Algeria came last in its group gaining only one point in a drawn game with Northern Ireland and losing to Brazil and Spain. It went much better for Africa’s other representatives, Morocco. They actually topped their group by playing goalless games against Poland and England and walloping Portugal 3-1 in Guadalajara (yes, an African team can beat Portugal!). In the knockout stage Morocco lost by a lone goal to West Germany – a team that went on to the finals. It was not a bad tournament for Africa. For the first time, an African team had made it beyond the group stage. The gap was closing. This set the stage for Italia 1990.
Italia 1990 still had 24 teams and Africa, two places. Ghana’s performance in the African qualifiers is one many of us will quickly want to forget. We went straight into the second round and lost to Liberia (0-0 at home and 0-2 in Monrovia). Africa’s still difficult qualifying rounds went on without Ghana and produced two winners – Cameroon and Egypt beating Tunisia and Algeria respectively to make it. The finals itself will produce Africa’s best ever performance to date with the Cameroonian quarter-final place. This was the tournament in which an aged Roger Milla danced around the corner flag after his goals to the delight of a whole world. He still didn’t tuck in his shirt. The Cameroonians beat defending champions Argentina featuring a still very good Maradona in a shocker of the opening game in Milan. Then they piped (to use a clichéd Ghanaian sports journalism term) Romania 2-1. The other games had gone in ways that favoured Cameroon, so when they lost their last group game 0-4 to the Soviet Union that had no chance of going further they knew they were already in the next round. In the knockout stage, Cameroon beat Columbia 2-1 after extra time to become the first ever African country to make it to the quarterfinals of a World Cup competition. In a thrilling quarter final match against England with a Paul Gascoigne at his best in Naples, the Cameroonians lost to a Gary Lineker penalty in extra time after having held the English to a pulsating 2-2 game in regulation time. This was Africa’s best moment! It didn’t go so well for Africa’s other representative even if they were not disgraced. Egypt came last in their group having drawn their games against Netherlands and Republic of Ireland and losing by the odd goal against England. Africa had everything to be proud of.
The Cameroonian and Egyptian efforts in 1990 might have made the case for giving Africa three places for the first time in the 1994 finals in the USA. But, still, Ghana couldn’t make it. The first African qualifying round saw teams drawn in 7 groups. Ghana played in group A alongside Algeria and Burundi. We came second with two victories and two losses. The only games we won were the ones we played at home. We even lost 0-1 away to Burundi! That, effectively, ended our World Cup dreams. Algeria went ahead from our group but would not make it to the World Cup. Africa’s places were taken by Cameroon, Morocco and Nigeria making its first appearance. Cameroon was not to repeat its 1990 feat. It drew its first game against Sweden and lost the two others to Brazil and Russia to come last in the group. Morocco lost all its group games including the one against Saudi Arabia. Nigeria was Africa’s shining star. They topped their group with two victories and a loss (the system of three points for a victory had now been introduced). They then went out of the tournament after losing the round of 16 games against eventual finalists, Italy, 1-2 after extra time. The Nigerians succumbed to the greater experience of the Italians but they had given a good account of the African game.
The participating teams were increased to 32 for the games in France, 1998. Africa now had four places. But Ghana still couldn’t make it. We beat Tanzania in the first round to make it to the group stage alongside Morocco, Gabon and Sierra Leone. In a series that could only produce one winner, we came third behind “even” Sierra Leone! Of the six matches we played, we won only one and drew three others. We even lost 0-2 at home to Sierra Leone! Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa (making its debut at the world stage) would represent Africa. The games were not good for Africa. Cameroon came last in their group having drawn two games and losing the third. Morocco won, drew and lost a game each and came third in their group only ahead of Scotland – the only side they beat. South Africa came third in its group with two draws and a 0-3 loss to eventual Cup winners, France. Yet again, Nigeria was Africa's only shining star. Like in USA four years earlier, they topped their group with two victories and a loss. But in the knockout stage, they lost 1-4 to Denmark.
Japan and South Korea, 2002, was Senegal’s moment in the sun. Africa still had four places but Ghana was still to make it. We cleared the first stage by seeing off Tanzania beating them away and at home. Then the second stage became a headache for us. Drawn in a group alongside Nigeria, Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone, we came fourth only ahead of Sierra Leone. We lost 1-3 at home to Liberia and could only draw 0-0 at home to our rivals, Nigeria. We did beat Liberia in the second round in Monrovia but by then, we had already hurt ourselves. By the time we went to Nigeria for the final match, it was only to fulfil the requirements of the game and, perhaps, spoil the fun for the Nigerians by beating them to enable Liberia to clinch the spot. The Nigerians took no chances and comfortably beat us 3-0 far away from Lagos. Africa’s other representatives were Cameroon (which was now making it a habit of appearing in the finals), South Africa and Senegal which was appearing for the first time. But the glory belonged to Senegal. Like Cameroon in 1990, Senegal beat defending champions France in a shocker, 1-0 in Seoul. Then they drew their other games to make it to the knockout stage where they beat Sweden 2-1 in extra time in a thrilling encounter. Everybody thought they had drawn a manageable quarter final side when they were due to face Turkey. But they let everybody down, losing 0-1 after extra time. But they were satisfied with their first time appearance having become only the second African side after Cameroon to get to the quarter finals. South Africa won, drew and lost a game each and lost a second place finish to Paraguay on goal aggregate. Cameroon had similar results as South Africa and came third in their group. Nigeria was the worst African performer at these games. They came last in their group with only a drawn game against England to show for their efforts. Africa reached a stage it had already shown the world it could reach. It needed to do better.
After dominating African football in the 70s and 80s and for a long time being one of the continent’s foremost exponents of the game, Ghana would now arrive at the world stage in Germany, 2006. The preliminary African qualifying stage saw Ghana beat Somalia 7-0 on aggregate (0-5, 2-0). Ghana then won its group game ahead of Congo D R and South Africa to qualify directly for the World Cup. Africa’s other representatives this year were Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. Only Ghana made it beyond the group stage. We lost our first game 2-0 to eventual trophy winners, Italy, but beat both the Czech Republic and the USA. Côte d’Ivoire found itself in a tough group, won only their last game when they had nothing to play for and came last. Angola drew two games and came third in their group. As for Togo, they scored only one goal in their 1-2 loss to South Korea and lost 0-2 each to France and Switzerland. In a strange game against Brazil in Dortmund in the knockout stage, Ghana lost 0-3 and went out of the tournament. The Ghanaians decided to play the game high up the field leaving big gaps behind which the Brazilians ruthlessly exploited. It was a good lesson for Ghana but Africa, as a whole, had not made any progress.
The games came to Africa for the first time in 2010 with South Africa as hosts. The immediate benefit was our five places as the hosts didn’t have to qualify. (Morocco was the first African country to try, unsuccessfully, to host the games.) Ghana qualified to South Africa directly by winning group 5 ahead of Gabon, Libya and Lesotho. It was a tricky combination as the first three teams each won four games and lost two obtaining 12 points each. Ghana clinched it only because of a better goal aggregate against Gabon (with the head to head count equal) and a better head to head count against Libya. Ghana’s performance in South Africa is still so fresh (and so painful) on everybody’s minds that it will need no recounting here.
Today, it is Brazil 2014. Ghana will be there for the third straight time. We got there the very hard way. The group stage was not decided until the last match when we beat Zambia in Kumasi. Then came that glorious game against Egypt in the final tie when the goals came as if by magic in our 6 – 1 win. Even with such a huge margin in the first leg, the return leg was still dreaded by a few Ghanaians. Late into the game in Cairo, the Egyptians had managed to score only two goals when they needed five. But then we pulled one back and now we are in Brazil. What is in store for us?
When the draw was made for the finals in Brazil, many Ghanaians looked on in horror as we were thrown into the most difficult group of any of Africa’s four representatives. Many are, however, hopeful we can make it. Germany will always be a hard nut to crack for us. But Portugal and USA? Yes, we can do it! If Algeria beat West Germany before, and Tunisia drew with them, we can also beat them for the first time. Portugal is a good side even if we take away Ronaldo. But we can beat them. And for the first time, we are going with an “indigenous” coach.
The African game has come a long way. Most of the African players representing Africa in Brazil are plying their trade in Europe playing alongside the best in the world. The experience and the knowhow are there. That is why some are arguing that this is the year Africa will get into the semi-finals. Will it be Ghana? Even if it is not, we shall all be rooting for the African team that makes it. As a Ghanaian, I very much wish it will be the Black Stars even though I know we blew our chances in South Africa and mother luck does not smile on one twice.
Africa has had so many near misses to the semi-finals. An inexperienced Cameroon lost to England by a strange penalty goal. Senegal lost to Turkey in a game they could have won but it looked as if they were satisfied with their quarter-final place. Suarez’s diabolical hand prevented Ghana from reaching the semi–finals. All of Africa’s quarter final games went to extra time. We have what it takes to make a semi-final place.
Ghana took a long time to reach a World Cup final. But if an African World Cup league table were made, Ghana would top it. We are the only African country with a quarter-final place as well as a group qualifier behind us. Cameroon was the first African team to make it to the quarters but they’ve not qualified from the group stage since then. Senegal has been in the World Cup only once. Ghana has something to be proud of.
The 2018 games will be in Russia. There will be 32 teams. If Africa will get more than its present five places, it will depend on how well we do in Brazil. I will be rooting for all the African teams but shouting hardest for Ghana!
Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)