By James Mundia
At least ONE African team will make a splash at this summer’s finals.
Never mind the unforgiving (and in Côte d’Ivoire’s case, brutal) draws. Due to the seeding process (even with this years modified seeding), Africa is always at a bit of a disadvantage. Nigeria thrived with a tough draw in 1994 and managed to win the group in its first ever World Cup appearance, only to crap out in the second round round. They fared similarly in 1998.
I’d rather focus on the perfect storm developing for an African team to go on to represent the whole continent deep into the Cup.
Despite the historically tough draws, African teams are notorious for first round shockers, something that every major team must be wary of. Oman-Biyik’s fluke game winner against Argentina in the 1990 opener sent waves through the football world and led to more and more African teams being permitted into the competition. As mentioned, Nigeria won it’s group in 1994 with wins over Bulgaria and Greece. 2002 saw the upstart Senegalese topple defending champ France in the opener, a feat rivaling what the Indomitable Lions did in 1990.
An early round upset will light the “hey we can actually do this” fire underneath a team and propel them to further group play success. Couple this with the home continent advantage and there could definitely be some fireworks. Look for Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to provide shockers, but don’t rule out Nigeria making some noise in their opener against Argentina.
Also worth noting is the relative public relations calm from African camps leading up the cup. At this stage before an international or regional competition I find myself cringing while reading stories of coaches threatening to walk out before international competitions and similar tales.
Yes, there is the farcical Roger Milla/Samuel Eto’o row in Cameroon, and the comical Benny McCarthy weight story out of South Africa. But other than the normal prognosticating (“Did Lagerback name the right team for Nigera”), the African FA’s, coaches, and players might be getting a grip when it comes to pre-competition behavior. Consider my fingers very crossed. Tightly.
Regardless of which team advances, they will represent the Africa’s collective hopes of bringing home the Cup. This is something that happens automatically in any World Cup among us Africans, and it means even more now as we’ll truly be on the world’s stage. We saw how the South African fans embraced the US during their improbable Confederations Cup run last summer. Now imagine this on a continent wide level, rooting for an underdog they can proudly call cousins, neighbors, and friends.
Dream scenarios aside, there are some real things will have to happen for Africa to make a splash:
Photo from fOTOGLIF
Drogba, Drogba, Drogba: (still should play after arm injury vs Japan 6/4/10)
Africa’s best player will have to perform on the level of the world’s best player for his squad to have a chance at even advancing out of the first round. DD’s dogged competitiveness shows his love of a good challenge, and he’ll have his chance at that with opening round games against Brazil and Portugal. It is this same competitiveness that can lead to the bonkers temper tantrum we saw after Chelsea’s Champions League exit in 2009. He’ll have to channel the simultaneous electricity and poise of Roger Milla in 1990 to inspire his team and his continent.
Defense, Defense, Defense:
The most heartbreaking moments in African World Cup history have come from some puzzling defensive lapses at critical moments in important games. Despite African nationals performing at defensive positions for the top clubs in the world (Yobo, Bassong,) team defense has always been a struggle. Nigeria was minutes away from knocking Italy out in 1994 but conceded a puff-ball of a goal to Baggio near stoppage time. They would complete the catastrophe by conceding a senseless penalty in extra time. Cameroon led late against England in the 1990 Quarterfinals, only two allow two penalties to close out the match and their shot at the semis. Ghana was overwhelmed from the start of the 2006 Round of 16 game against Brazil, conceding a goal to Ronaldo 5 minutes into the match.
African managers and their defensive leaders will have to embrace the current trend in international competitions that rewards measured offensive tactics with dogged, stubborn defense when necessary, (read: 2006 World Cup).
My pick is is the Nigerians to go the furthest, but don’t rule out Cote d’Ivoire to make an impact either. Though they may make it out of the group, it’s a stretch to see Ghana going far without Essien at the helm, especially considering who they have to go up against. I’m going to go against history and guess that South Africa, as much as I hate to say it, might be the first host country to advance through the first round.
Of course, there have been teams with less of a shot on paper that have done quite well, and on turf not anywhere as friendly as their own. The opener against Mexico will be telling.
James Mundia is a soccer player, enthusiast, writer, and coach based in Washington, DC and born in Kenya. You can read his blog at jmundia.wordpress.com