5 Nations 1 Continent Little Hope
Harare – Africa will send five countries to the 2014 FIFA Soccer World Cup in Brazil but what hopes do they carry for a continent that is yet to breach the quarter-final barrier or, even better still, lift the trophy?
There were half-a-dozen African countries at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with Bafana Bafana playing in that tournament by virtue of being hosts.
Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire were the other African qualifiers at the 2010 showpiece, the first to be held on the continent.
And these same five will be in Brazil next year representing the continent. South Africa failed to make the cut.
The Black Stars of Ghana illuminated the 2010 World Cup with a dazzling show that took them to the quarter-finals – only the third African team to achieve that feat.
They had a chance to become the first African team to reach the semi-finals but Luis Suarez's “Hand of the Devil” denied the continent its date with destiny with a decisive – and illegal – intervention in the last minute of the quarter-final clash between Uruguay and Ghana at Soccer City.
The image of Asamoah Gyan missing the penalty that would have given Africa its first dance in the semi-finals of the World Cup will remain embedded in the memory of all those who watched cruel fate mug the continent.
That Ghana went on to lose the penalty shootout lottery rubbed salt into the gushing emotional wounds of millions of Africans who really believed that this was their golden moment.
There are many African football fans who believe that the Black Stars had a real chance of winning the 2010 World Cup and given the way they performed against a brilliant Uruguay side in that quarter-final, it's hard to laugh off that belief.
But that was then, this is now.
And the big question is what hopes do fans on the continent have of the ultimate success story being written by one of our representatives in the Land of Pele come 2014?
The Nigerians are in bullish mood after the Super Eagles won the 2013 Nations Cup in Johannesburg.
To get to the World Cup, Steve Keshi and his men impressed in a 4-1 destruction of Ethiopia in the final qualifier and hopes are high that the Super Eagles will manage to do what no other African team has ever done.
The Nigerians have fond memories of their adventures on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1994 with Keshi as skipper of the Super Eagles, Nigeria reached the second round of the World Cup in the United States and were just minutes away from the quarter-finals against a strong Italian side led by Roberto Baggio.
However, Baggio struck the equaliser, and then the winner, to end the Super Eagles brave campaign.
That the Italian side went all the way to the final and were only beaten by Brazil on penalties, thus putting into context the quality of the Nigerian side.
Two years later, the Nigerian Olympic team went to the US and, powered by the silky skills of Nwanko Kanu, won gold at the Atlanta Games.
But there are genuine concerns that that the Super Eagles class of 2014 do not have the quality that was abundant in the class of ‘94.
Yes, Jon Obi Mikel has proved his class at Chelsea and is now the natural leader of the Super Eagles. But he doesn't seem to have the kind of authority needed to impose himself on a tournament as big as the World Cup.
And while Emmanuel Emenike has scored some crucial goals for his country, he doesn't appear to have the pedigree to be the kind of a forward who can take a World Cup by storm.
Defensively, the Nigerians have looked compact, thanks probably to Keshi's background as a defender. But in Brazil the opposition will be stronger than Ethiopia.
“I think the Super Eagles will compete in Brazil but l don't think they will shake the world,” Shepherd Chiware, a leading sports consultant in Harare, said.
“A lot will depend on their first game. If they do well, it can shape their tournament but if they start badly, things can go wrong horribly because you always feel something is set to explode when it comes to the Nigerian national football team.
“When they were coming to South Africa they hired a funny European coach who had never worked in Africa and the experiment backfired badly.
“Already we are hearing that the coach hasn't been paid for a very long time and such instability doesn't help.”
Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire are driven by their ageing superstars and it's highly unlikely that Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba will set the stage alight in Brazil.
The Ivorians struggled in their final qualifier against a Senegalese side that didn't get to play in their backyard after being shifted to the neutral grounds of Morocco.
The Lions of Teranga came very close to causing a huge upset when they had a golden chance to kill the game in the dying moments of the second leg of the qualifier.
“I think the Ivorians have star quality in Yaya Toure but he struggled against Senegal in Casablanca,” said Chiware.
“But he is always fighting a lone battle in that midfield and you can't win a World Cup alone unless you are Diego Maradona.
“I think Drogba will have his swansong tournament but won't make an impact.
“My good money is on Ghana doing better than the rest of the continent but I am worried about their defence which showed a lot of weaknesses in that game against Egypt in Cairo.
“Gyan was their star man last time and he now has the extra burden of being the captain of the side and while he handled it well in the qualifiers, the World Cup will provide a different challenge.
“We haven't seen an exciting crop of young and talented players emerging in Africa in the past three years to excite us and create hope that they will do wonders at the World Cup in Brazil.”
There is a feeling that the Algerians, who struggled in South Africa, will struggle again in Brazil.
They needed goal difference to edge a brave Burkina Faso team in the final qualifier and did not do much to instill hope that they will tame the best that the world can offer in Brazil.
“I think a second round place will be a success for any of our teams in Brazil,” said Chiware. “It doesn't look good for us, really.”