ANALYSIS: A dismal African outing at Russia 2018

Super Eagles of Nigeria
Super Eagles of Nigeria (Photo Credit: Reuters)

After the dust has settled and the emotions are back to their normal levels, African countries can tell themselves the truth – they were not good enough on the world football stage.

Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia did not adequately represent the plethora of football talent the continent lays claim to. In an article, ‘Africa continues baby steps at FIFA World Cup’ published on June 2, reasons were given as to why the continent continues to lag behind other continents.

The farthest any of the 13 countries that have represented the continent has gone is the quarterfinal. This feat was achieved by Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana in 1990, 2002, and 2010 editions respectively.

The group stage of the 21st edition, taking place in Russia has just concluded and all the African teams are on their way home.

All the five nations – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Senegal — suffered one common thing in Russia: concession of goals from set pieces, while Nigeria and Morocco also suffered the ignominy of conceding own goals.

In 15 matches played, the five African countries scored 16 goals and conceded 26. While Nigeria and Algeria made it through to the round of 16 at the last World Cup in Brazil, Russia 2018 has proved worse with no African nation in the second round for the first time in 32 years.

So what ails African football?

Absence Of Stardust

Former Super Eagles forward and an Olympic silver medalist, Osaze Odemwingie, in his role as a CNN pundit for Russia 2018 said, “You need star players, you need people with cold blood who can finish and get goals – I think that’s lacking in our teams at the moment.”

But Egypt can boast of Mohamed Salah, even though he was not at 100 percent in Russia; Senegal have Sadio Mane; Nigeria have Victor Moses, Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia stars for Morocco, while Tunisia have Wahbi Kazri.

The presence of these stars does not seem enough just yet.

Coaching On The Continent

What about coaches for African teams in Russia? Three of the five came with foreign coaches even though no nation has ever won football’s greatest diadem with a foreigner at the helm of tactical duties.

Tunisia and Senegal came with their nationals as their managers which then raises an expedient question – how much tactical expertise did they gain before they were handed the reins of management of their countries?

Aliou Cisse, who led Senegal to the quarter-final in the 2002 edition, said the challenges the continent faces will not deter the development and eventual capture of the World Cup.

“I’m certain that one day an African team, an African country, will win the World Cup,” Cisse told South African football reporter and analyst, Mark Gleeson, in Russia.

“But it would take time. It’s a bit more complicated in our countries. We face realities that are not there in other continents,” Cisse said, referring to infrastructure, budget, and organisational problems.

Although he ended on an optimistic note – “But Africa is full of quality and we’re on the way. We fully trust our football, we have no hang-ups.”

Naïve And Corrupt Administrators

In a recent development in Ghana, most of the football federation has had to resign their positions because of corruption charges following a sting operation. A Nigerian referee was also suspended recently for being a part of a scheme to bribe a fellow referee in a continental club match.

Where there is a strategy developed by most European nations to develop the game, starting from the grassroots, most African administrators are in the game for gain – which means the focus is mostly on the various national teams. The question they need to answer is what makes up the building blocks of the national teams…the local leagues!

The players are also not well managed – making moves that pay in dollars but ultimately take away from their careers. With the World Cup on the horizon, some Nigerian players moved to China when they could have been better advised to stay in Europe until after the World Cup, but that was never a consideration.

Chasing Players In The Diaspora

Mark Wotte, speaking in the Financial Times said, “On average the Moroccan [replace with African] trained in Europe is better in every respect than the Moroccan trained in Morocco.

“Moroccan players always had skill, but the problem was ball winning and the defensive aspect. With the local boys, I’m always working on decision-making.”

He blamed that expressly on bad playing conditions – “pitches tend to be very bad.”

Morocco came to Russia with over 60% of its squad born and bred abroad, Senegal came with 40%, and Nigeria’s Super Eagles have their share.

Egypt has a thriving league with African juggernauts like Al Ahly and Zamalek but they have not won a match in the World Cup in their three appearances. It says a lot about the quality of the league and African competitions.

Though Pele predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup before the year 2000, this is 2018, and that prediction does not look like coming true, even at Qatar 2022.

The continent has won the U-16, U-20, and Olympic football titles but a semi-final spot at the World Cup still eludes. Those tournaments that were won were developmental in nature – it was not the end, it was a means to an end but unfortunately many African football administrators make it the end.

The World Cup is the pinnacle of football’s test and Africa will continue to fail this test if it continues to put the cart before the horse. The players are in abundance but strategy and true administrators are a mirage!

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