Africa yet to meet destiny
Next year it will be 30 years since Pele made those remarks but Africa’s flame is fading with each passing World Cup finals.
On Tuesday night, Africa’s World Cup interests vanished in the Germany city of Dortmund as its last representative ‘ the Black Stars of Ghana ‘ crashed out of the tournament.
The Ghanaians were beaten 0-3 by world champions Brazil but not before turning on an impressive display that won the hearts of a lot of neutrals scattered around the globe.
Playing at their first World Cup finals, the Ghanaians were a revelation as they finished second in their group and then gave a fine display when pitted against the mighty Brazilians.
They beat the Czech Republic ‘ then ranked in second place by Fifa in the world ‘ 2-0 and then edged the United States 2-1 to book their place in the second round.
But the Ghanaians were an oasis of relative success in a desert of African failure as the other four representative teams failed to go past the group stages of the competition.
Tunisia, Togo, Angola and Cote d’Ivoire all fell by the wayside in the group stages as the African representatives failed to make a mark at this World Cup.
Maybe we should have seen it during the first round of matches as the statistics, involving African teams, made very sad reading ‘ Played ‘ five, Won ‘ zero, Drew ‘ one, Lost ‘ four, Scored-four, Conceded-nine, Points ‘ one.
By the end of the group phase the African teams had won a combined total of just three games with Ghana winning two of those games with their victories over the USA and the Czech Republic.
Tunisia, Angola and Togo bade farewell to the World Cup tournament without winning a single game.
In fact the Togolese were the worst team ‘ both on and off the field ‘ and their industrial action at the showcase as they boycotted training because of a pay dispute was a terrible advertisement of the chaos in African football.
The Togolese only scored once in their three games but conceded six goals.
African representatives lost eight games in the group stages, including three for Togo, and two for Tunisia and the Ivorians.
Now as the focus shifts to South Africa in 2010, the continent has a lot of questions that it must answer if an African team is going to win the World Cup before Pele dies.
Sixteen years ago it had all looked so good that everyone was beginning to believe in all the rhetoric about an African team winning the World Cup finals.
The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon set the world alight as they beat defending world champions Argentina 1-0 in the opening match of the tournament in Italy with Francois Oman-Biyik scoring the priceless goal.
The Cameroonians, featuring a 42-year-old forward called Roger Milla, then went all the way to the quarter-finals of the same tournament.
They were minutes away from the semi-finals in their showdown against England when midfielder Emmanuel Ekeke gave them a 2-1 lead.
But in the twilight of the match, the English got a penalty that was converted by Gary Lineker and in extra-time they got another one, converted again by the same player, as they marched home.
Four years later in the United States, the Indomitable Lions were eliminated in the very first round but a new crop of Nigerian players set the stage alight with their attacking football.
The Super Eagles were just minutes away from a place in the quarter-finals as they led Italy only for Roberto Baggio to score a late equaliser and then fire home the decisive goal that eliminated the brave Africans.
Two years later the majority of these Super Eagles were back on American soil ‘ this time in Atlanta, Georgia ‘ and they became the first African team to win the gold medal in the Olympic Games.
The Nigerians were again eliminated in the second round at the 1998 World Cup in France but four years later the Terenga Lions of Senegal again lifted Africa’s hopes with a place in the quarter-finals.
Sadly that progress was checked at this World Cup in Germany ‘ a tournament that Africa could have hosted had South Africa not lost in controversial circumstances during the voting process.
South Africa will get its chance to become the first African country to host the World Cup finals in four years time but is Africa ready to win the tournament on its own soil?
There are a lot of explanations for Africa’s failure by the experts.
“This time fate dealt the continent a cruel hand when its best team, the Cote d’Ivoire, was drawn along side Argentina, Holland and Serbia,” said African journalist Matthew Amoah.
“They would probably have qualified from any other group and their strong performances bode well. A bit more coolness in front of goal and they could have progressed.
“And minnows Togo, split by a cash dispute, did not disgrace themselves in narrowly going down to South Korea and Switzerland despite their off-field problems.
“Angola are, to their credit, in with a shout of going through if they can see off Iran and if Portugal beat Mexico by two goals or more, both of which are possible results.
“Tunisia impressed against Spain but will regret their second half shambles against Saudi Arabia which saw them draw that match.
“The Black Stars’ win against the Czechs showed off the best of African football.”
What is the feeling within Fifa about Africa’s chances of World Cup glory?
“Pele once said an African nation would win the Fifa World Cup before the end of the 20th Century,” reads the official World Cup website www.fifaworldcup.com.
“In the continent’s favour is its continued success at youth level with Cameroon following up Nigeria’s 1996 victory in the Olympic football tournament.
“There have also been notable successes at U-17 and U-20 level.
“While more and more African players are employed in European leagues (most notably Nigeria, who almost rival Brazil in the number of footballers they export), an increasing number of European and South Americans coaches are training teams the length and breadth of the mother continent offering their wisdom and improving tactics and technique.
“However while it is true that since Pele’s remark and Cameroon’s lap of honour in Naples, African footballers have swarmed to Europe’s top leagues, their impact could at best be described as modest.
“Africa’s most successful footballers arguably remain Liberia’s George Weah, and Ghana’s Abedi Pele, players at their peak a decade ago.
“Of the current crop, few are setting Europe alight. And even when players compete with the best it can be a double-edged sword for national team coaches.
“Despite the acknowledgement that technique and discipline are most lacking among the continents’ teams, internal wrangling involving federations, coaches and players continues, alienating players and demotivating them at top international competitions.”
Pele now believes Africa could win the competition when it hosts it in 2010.
“Africa has an opportunity to win in 2010. The World Cup is a box of surprises and Africa has an excellent opportunity to play very well in 2010,” he told reporters on his recent visit to South Africa.
But Steven Bailey, a respected author, has other thoughts.
“It was my intention to suggest that whilst Pele possessed a deadly prowess in front of goal during his playing career he is far less accurate in his public pronouncements about football off the field,” he said in a contributory piece to the Fifaworldcup.com website.
“Looking at the eventful history of the World Cup you do not need to be particularly bright or observant to recognise Africa’s poor record.
“At the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay 1930 there was no African presence. In 1934 Egypt became the first African country to participate (losing the one match that they played to Hungary 4-2).
“These two events would set the pattern for unsuccessful or absence of African involvement in the World Cup until 1978 when Tunisia became the first African nation to win a match in the tournament beating Mexico 3-1.
“If you look at the almost equal division of World Cup winners between South America and Europe then the record of the African nations looks paltry (two quarter finalists in Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002).
“Even these achievements are sullied by the failure of these particular teams to impose themselves on a regular basis in football’s elite.
“Take the example of Senegal. As debutants to the World Cup in 2002 they managed to shock the world by beating then-holders France 1-0 and showed their capabilities by progressing as far as they did.
“But, they will not take any part in this tournament because they failed to get past a lowly-rated Togo team in the qualifying rounds.
“Success will only emerge when African teams are repeatedly exposed in successive tournaments to teams of differing styles (England’s high tempo play, Italy’s defensive minded approach or German resolve to win) in all the various stages that you can possibly encounter.
“It would be fair to suggest that the African’s entrants to this World Cup have not yet acquired the experience to become members of the small and illustrious band of winners of the World Cup.
“Indeed, 4 of the 5 entrants to the World Cup will be their as debutants (Angola, Togo, Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire ). Only Tunisia have any experience of World Cup football and their record is miserable.”
Bailey also believes that the best African teams remained at home and failed to qualify for the Germany tournament.
“The highest ranking African nation at the tournament is Tunisia (21st) whilst the lowest is Angola (58th).
“This compares badly with non-qualifiers from Africa like Nigeria (11th), Cameroon (15th) and Egypt (17th).
“The failure of Africa to impose itself on the stage of world football derives, at least in part, from the inability of its various nations to build up the strong internal infrastructure required to build success on a long-term basis.
“Because of their poor internal structures players like Didier Drogba have to seek their development, fame and fortunes abroad.
“This is why there is only one member of the Cote d’Ivoire squad who does not play club football in Europe.
“These problems are the result of inadequate stadia, poor training facilities and poor coaching.”
Having waved goodbye to Germany, Africa must now shift its focus to South Africa in 2010.
But there are serious doubts as to whether the continent would have, within the next four years, done enough to ensure that one of its own countries lifts the World Cup.
Pele will be watching closely.
Africa’s 16 years of hurt
2006 performances (so far):
Tunisia drew first match (against Saudi Arabia). Ghana, Togo, Angola and Ivory Coast all lost their first match
2002: Senegal (quarterfinal losers). Nigeria, Tunisia, South Africa and Cameroon (all eliminated in first round)
1998: Nigeria (beaten in second round). Morocco, Cameroon, South Africa, Tunisia (all eliminated in first round)
1994: Nigeria (beaten in second round). Cameroon, Morocco (all eliminated in first round)
1990: Cameroon (beaten in quarterfinals), Egypt (eliminated in first round)