What does Brasil 2014 hold for Africa?
Harare – Last time, it was Luis Suarez’s “Hand of the Devil” and the width of the crossbar which denied Africa its date with destiny and an historic place in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.
Some seasoned observers feel fate’s cruel hand and Asamoah Gyan’s fluffed spot-kick, which was virtually the last kick of an absorbing contest against Uruguay at Johannesburg’s Soccer City, robbed Africa of its finest chance of breaking the duck and winning its maiden World Cup title.
Brazil’s legend Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup before the turn of the millennium might have proved way off the mark but in 2002, a very strong Senegalese team was only beaten by a golden goal by Turkey, for a place in the semi-finals, after having beaten world champions France in the first game.
While the 2006 World Cup proved a poor campaign for the African teams, representing a giant backward step in what had until then been a steady gain of momentum, the African World Cup in 2010 showed that Germany was a fluke as the Black Stars of Ghana shined brightly in the gloom of the South African winter.
Had Suarez not “cheated” and played by the rules, letting the ball go home once he realised he could not stop it legally with his head, the Black Stars would have booked a semi-final spot against the Netherlands and, when you reach the last four, anything can happen and they could have had a real chance of success.
South African legend, Lucas Radebe, said while Ghana’s loss was heart-breaking, given all the possibilities presented by the position they found themselves in very late in that game, the Black Stars also provided lessons for the Africans ahead of future tournaments.
“The rest of the African nations might have disappointed but Ghana give us hope for the future,” Radebe, who captained Bafana Bafana at the World Cups in 1998 and 2002, wrote in an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph of England.
“Ghana has a young team – many of the players are in their very early 20s – and they will all be more experienced by the time they go to Brazil 2014. I have high hopes for the future of South African football but these boys from Ghana should be the best team on the continent for the next decade.
“Who knows what Ghana might have achieved, though? Of course, there are no small teams left in a World Cup but it will be even more disappointing for Ghana knowing that they might have had a better chance of getting to the final, with the Netherlands beating Brazil.
“The Dutch would still have been the favourites against the Black Stars but the way the Ghanaians have played, with total commitment, and with the support of the South African crowd there might have been another surprise in Cape Town.”
But just a few months before the 2014 World Cup finals get underway in Brazil, with Africa having held the first of its two-legged final qualifying battles to decide the five teams to represent the continent, there is little to suggest that there will an explosion of African success stories in the Land of Pele.
Cote d’Ivoire took what should be a defendable 3-1 lead into the second leg of their final qualifier against Senegal, which, to the Ivorians’ advantage, will be played on the neutral fields of Casablanca in Morocco. However, the Elephants’ golden generation might still be a class act in Africa but, in its swansong dance with the World Cup, appear too old to make a big impact.
Didier Drogba, the team captain and all-time leading goal scorer, will be 36 by the time the World Cup explodes in Brazil and will need the magic of Roger Milla to set Brazil alight at a time when, by the exceptionally high standards that he set for himself at his peak, he concedes that he has become a shadow of that terrier that terrorised defences.
Didier Zokora, another key member of the team, will be 34, Kolo Toure will be 33 and Yaya Toure, the talisman in the side, will be 31.
Samuel Eto’o looks set for a swansong World Cup dance with his Indomitable Lions after they grabbed the initiative in the first leg by pulling off a draw in Tunis ahead of their home leg in Yaounde next month.
But the former African Footballer of the Year will be 33 by the time the World Cup comes along in Brazil and those who have followed him closely recently, having been parachuted from the obscurity of the Russian top-flight into the spotlight of the English Premiership where he now plays for Chelsea, feel he has become a shade slower.
Eto’o remains Cameroon’s best player, even as he battles in the twilight of what has been a great career, given that the country has failed to produce a raft of stars to take over and his participation in the final qualifiers, having earlier announced his retirement from the game, was influenced by the intervention of the country’s President Paul Biya.
In the event that the Black Stars leap the hurdle erected by the Pharaohs of Egypt, they will arrive in Brazil with a frontline that has not changed much from the faces that led their line in South Africa, with Gyan the main man upfront.
But Gyan will be 29 next year and will he has been impressive in the qualifiers, scoring crucial goals, it is a fact that he is today not in the same peak condition that he was three years ago when he arrived in South Africa, having been panel-beaten by the English Premiership and playing club football at a very top level.
Today, the leading Black Stars’ marksman plays in the United Arab Emirates, certainly not the kind of league that can produce the kind of competitive environment to help a forward turn into one who can destroy the opposition, when he comes face-to-face with the best defences on the globe, at the World Cup.
Maybe, if the Pharaohs qualify, then they could come with the X-Factor, a team with very little to lose, led by Basel’s Mohamed Sallah, who can use the political challenges that have kept their country under hostage as an inspiration to write a remarkable success story at their first World Cup finals in 24 years.
But Mohamed Aboutrika, the man that the Pharaohs always look up to for inspiration, will be a ripe 36 years old when the next World Cup show comes along in Brazil.
“When you look at African football, you will see that it is still being dominated by the old horses, Yaya Toure has been the African Footballer of the Year for the past two years and his main competition has come from Drogba,” said Zimbabwean football agent, George Deda.
“We don’t have an exciting crop of young players who have really set the scene alight and that’s why I don’t believe that we will have our teams doing as well as we would want in Brazil and match or better the standards set by the Black Stars in South Africa in 2010.”
Next month Africa will know which countries will represent the continent in Brazil and while the first four games of the first leg of the qualifiers might have been explosive by producing 12 goals, and a missed penalty, one feels there will not be an African goal rush in Brazil next year.