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Can an African team ever challenge for the World Cup again?

Black Stars 2010 A file photo of Ghana's quarter final clash against Uruguay at 2010 FIFA World Cup

Thu, 7 May 2020 Source: goal.com

While several African nations have enjoyed memorable runs in the World Cup, the summit of the mountain remains, as yet, unconquered for the continent.

Algeria is able to point to the 'Shame of Gijon'. Morocco and Senegal have known the cruelty of extra-time. Cameroon may have reason to bemoan Gary Lineker’s apparent lack of structural fortitude. Ghana have suffered the villainy of Luis Suarez. Tales of misfortune abound, but the disappointment is no less keen.

That said, failure is often a necessary component in the quest for ultimate success.

More depressing than the manner of these exits is the sense that, for Africa, these 'failures' are not frequent enough – for the most part, her representatives barely even register at the World Cup. Since the allocation of five qualifying slots for the first time in 1998, there has been no quantum leap.

Indeed, only at the 2014, World Cup did more than one African side make it to the knockout rounds, with both Algeria and Nigeria crashing and burning in the last 16, though at least Les Fennecs served up an instant classic against eventual champions Germany.

Squaring this degree of underachievement with the vast potential of the continent is difficult, as is the fact that, despite all indicators promising the opposite, Africa’s outings are actually getting worse.

Nigerian football historian Calvin Onwuka has followed the game for over 30 years and believes that there is a certain surprise factor that has now been lost given the number of players now plying their trade in Europe.

“European football is bigger than it has ever been, and the Champions League is now such a huge cash cow that it has ruined the element of surprise that African teams used to bring to the World Cup,” he tells Goal. “Now all our players play in Europe.

"Our teams also try to copy what they consider to be best practice in football by emulating what they see on TV.”

It is an interesting idea: the continent’s perceived innocence was roundly mocked when Zaire endured a calamitous campaign in 1974, but it at least presented the world with something different. Now it would appear the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and Africa has embraced orthodoxy far too enthusiastically.

Where once different regions and nations had their own distinct interpretation of football, now there is a stultifying homogeneity; a pooling of hearts and minds around the monolith of European football.

Even Brazil, that great World Cup nation, is not immune.

Their response to the disappointment of 1982 was to veer wildly the other way, and when they turned up in the USA 12 years later to claim a fourth crown, it was with a widely-panned double pivot of Dunga and Mauro Silva protecting the defence. There was glory in the end, but little beauty.

For Africa, just keeping hold of players who could be moulded into such systems is proving difficult.

An undeniable facet of rapid globalisation is migration, and with more and more people crossing borders in search of opportunity and a market where they can offer their ideas and investments, there has been a strengthening of economies in the western world.

In order to survive, African families have followed the money trail to the European game, and the footballers have not been left out – rampant corruption, poverty, mismanagement and the absence of foresight where football development is concerned on the continent make it not only convenient but imperative.

The presence of these African stars in European competitions lends a cosmopolitan feel, as well greater appeal back home while affording the continent’s best players a chance to compete with their peers in a global marketplace.

However, there is a trade-off linked to demand and supply.

European football, which is eminently capable of producing technical and tactical excellence by means of an organised academy system, largely prefers to import what it cannot organically produce. For all that football has been analysed to death, it still transcends cold science, and so such attributes as flair, determination and physicality are prized when clubs go scouting in places such as South America and Africa.

FIFA’s chief of global development and former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, sagely observed in 2015 that Europe’s football development lacked something instinctual: “What we produce now are good technical players because there are nice pitches out there – before you played in the park where you had to kick the ball upfront and you had to fight.

“The strikers are South American today. Europe doesn’t produce strikers anymore.”

From Africa, it appears, it is the brawny midfielder with an iron lung that is prized above all. In order to meet this demand and improve their chances of a move to Europe, increasing numbers of young African players are shoved into this restrictive mould.

In the end, Africa gets back players that are distinctively un-African. South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan struck even closer to the heart of the problem than he perhaps intended in 2018, as none of the continent’s representatives made a mark at that summer’s World Cup.

“If you look at the Nigerian team, not many play in the domestic league, and some had been awarded citizenship, meaning they were not developed in the country,” he said.

“Morocco had four Spanish-born players who are plying their trade in Spain, four of Dutch heritage and five who were born in France. This means three-quarters of the team was made up of players who were not born and bred in the country. I’m not sure whether that’s a wise thing to do.”

It is not so much a case of what is wise as it is what is inevitable. As is, there seems no obvious means by which this state of affairs might be turned around.

With academies on the continent relying increasingly on their partnerships with European clubs to provide a pathway for the continent’s aspiring young footballers, it is clear they will continue to produce to specification. The focus is less on getting Africa to compete globally than it is to turn a profit under the guise of poverty alleviation.

So, for all the optimism that accompanies such potential superstars as Patson Daka, Victor Osimhen, Samuel Chukwueze, Christian Kouame, Achraf Hakimi and Steve Regis Mvoue, it is difficult to shake an underwhelming pessimism. In order for Africa to get one over on Europe, it would first have to beat Europe at its own game

Football, however, is now Europe’s game. The deck is stacked. In Onwuka’s view, the boat of World Cup glory has sailed.

“The best chances Africa had to win a World Cup came in 1990 with Cameroon and 1994 with Nigeria,” he claims. “That chance has now gone.”

Source: goal.com
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