What went wrong for African teams at the World Cup 2018?

The FIFA World Cup 2018 has given us plenty of historical moments; England made their first World Cup Semi Finals in decades, Croatia reached the final of a World Cup for the first time ever, Germany were knocked out in the group stages for the first time since 1938 and there was longest stretch of games without a goalless draw. However, in Russia we also saw an African team fail to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time since 1982.

African football has progressed enormously over the past 30 years, and although no team has progressed past the Quarter Final (Cameroon in 1990, Senegal 2002 and Ghana 2010), we have seen a steady stream of teams making it out of their group. Prior to 1990, the best performance of an African team was Morocco’s second round appearance in Spain in 1982. The export of the continent’s best players to top European clubs has certainty helped. While ten of Cameroon’s 1990 squad played in France, only one, goalkeeper, Joseph-Antoine Bell, played for a reputable club, Bordeaux, and 11 of the squad still plied their trade domestically. By comparison, only three of the Ghana side of 2010 played in Ghana, while four played in England, three in Italy and two in Germany. The development of the scouting networks of teams from the‘big five’ leagues has helped with Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United, among others, having affiliate teams on the continent.

As soon as the 2010 World Cup was awarded to South Africa the talk was of when, not if, an African team would win international football’s biggest prize. After all, Pele pronounced in 1977 that African side would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. While that didn’t materialise, we have seen African nations stepping up and taking on their more illustrious counterparts. Algeria beat eventual finalists, West Germany, 2-1 in 1982. Cameroon beat then world champions, Argentina, 1-0 in 1990.

Senegal also recorded a victory against the current holders as they defeated France 1-0 in 2002, while hosts, South Africa, knocked out a calamitous France side, 2-1, in 2010. In 2014 Nigeria and Algeria, of the five African teams in Brazil, made it past the group stages and while they were knocked out by strong Germany and France teams in the next round, it was the first time ever two African sides had qualified for the knockout stages.

The quiet progression of African teams since 1990 meant that the continent’s hopes were high for even further success in Russia. Tunisia were the continent’s highest FIFA ranked team (21st and as high as 14th in April 2018), Egypt had one of the world’s hottest players, Mo Salah, and were runners up in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Senegal were undefeated in qualifying, Nigeria, despite a lack of Africa Cup of Nations success in recent years, recorded an encouraging friendly victory over a talented Poland side in March 2018. Morocco too had beaten fellow World Cup qualifiers, Serbia. However just three wins in 15 games in Russia, with two of those against Iceland and Panama, have left the football world wondering what went wrong.

Many point to Egypt star, Salah, and his injury in the Champions League Final. There is little doubt it greatly affected the chances of the team in their first game and although he appeared in the final two games, scoring twice, he was far fromthe peak condition. It also deprived the world of seeing a one the greatest African footballers of all time, in his prime, on the biggest stage of all. This was a huge chance for Egypt, the continent’s most successful team, to record their first win at the finals, and the distinct possibility of making the knockout rounds if they could beat Saudi Arabia and hold off either Russia or Uruguay.

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In the end the latter two teams were much stronger, with Russia much better than anticipated, and Egypt limped out of the tournament without recording that elusive win. A 95th minute winner from Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al-Dawsari consigned them to three defeats from three games. Their defence, and not the antics of Sergio Ramos, has to take much of the blame for their poor performance as they gave up another injury time winning goal in their first game against Uruguay.

Morocco’s campaign was over before it really began, their first game against Iran was a must-win as they had to face 2016 European Champions, Portugal, and former world and European champions, Spain in their final two games. They too suffered at the hands of the ill-fated injury time loss as Aziz Bouhaddouz put past his own keeper in the 95th minute against Iran. Needing at least a win from their final two games they performed very well, arguably the best out of the African contingent at the finals, and although they only had a solitary point to show for their efforts, they were the better team against Portugal and were deservedly leading until injury time against Spain before Iago Aspas netted the equaliser. Their attacking movement and speed were much admired by many in Russia though.

Tunisia, like Morocco, had two strong European opponents in Group H. They however did not impress like Morocco. Injured star player, Youssef Msakni, didn’t make the plane to Russia and was a colossal blow for them.His play making abilities would surely have brought some variety and flair to their game. Their defensive game plans against England and Belgium were ruthlessly undone and had England been more clinical in the first half an hour of their opening game the score line would’ve been much like the one against Belgium. As it happens they too were thwarted by a stoppage time goal courtesy of one of England’s deadly set piece routines. Although it wasn’t all bad news as they recorded a lone win against Panama and were Africa’s top goal scorers with five.

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Big things were expected of Nigeria, a team which contained Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, which cruised through a qualifying group containing among others, Cameroon and Algeria. Their first game found them outplayed by a Croatia team that didn’t have to be at their best. Despite their nervous, poor start in which they let themselves down, they recorded their first win against Iceland with a superb display of attacking power.In fact, they were just minutes away from the Round of 16 before a cruel defeat at the hands of a stagnant Argentina side in their last game. Once they shook off their first game disappointment, Nigeria were an attractive side to watch, with a great organisation and strength which will serve them well if they can build on this experience and make the Finals in Qatar in four years.

Senegal impressed many with their cavalier approach but while that kind of approach will win over fans, it doesn’t always win games. They became the first African side to win at the finals with victory over Poland but the limitations of their tactic were exposed as they twice lead against Japan but failed to record the win, a win which would’ve seen them qualify for the Round of 16. Instead they had to avoid defeat against Colombia in their final game.They failed to manage this and departed early, but only because they received more yellow cards than Japan. A very cruel way to be knocked out. Liverpool forward, Sadio Mané was expected to do well for Senegal but he never showed anywhere near the kind of form he produced in the Premier League last season, with opposing defences marshalling him extremely well in Russia.

There are other factors to be considered, not least the draw itself, with Nigeria and Morocco being pitted against very strong opponents, at least on paper, in Argentina, Croatia and Spain and Portugal, respectively. Tunisia too were outclassed by Belgium and to a lesser extent, England. The draw can be considered unfortunate with both Nigeria and Morocco both lamenting the fact that Peru, Mexico and Switzerland were the other pot two teams they could’ve faced instead.

To bemoan the draw is purely to speculate and eventually one has to question the concentration levels and ability to kill off a game. One may have noticed a running theme so far; one of conceding late goals. Senegal and Morocco are the biggest culprits, having lost three points each from goals conceded after 75 minutes, both would’ve qualified had they not dropped those points. Nigeria threw away one point; the one point which would’ve seen them qualify over Argentina. The two points lost by Egypt may not have been enough but could’ve changed the outlook of their last two games had they held on against Uruguay. The same can be said for Tunisia who were defeated by Harry Kane’s injury time goal, they too may have benefited from a different perspective had they gained a point from their opening game.

It can also be argued the African teams lacked a little of a vital ingredient for tournament success; luck. Senegal were eliminated by receiving more yellow cards than Japan. Egypt’s Mo Salah entered the tournament injured and then wasn’t fully fit for the remaining two games, thus severely denting Egypt’s hopes. Morocco can feel particularly aggrieved as they conceded an injury time own goal against Iran and Nordin Amrabat struck the angle of post and crossbar with their game against Spain poised at 1-1. These are minor parts of a bigger picture but a little luck definitely helps. Imagine if VAR had given Nigeria a second penalty for handball against Marcos Rojo.

For all the bewailing of VAR, unfavourable draws and injury time goals, one has to point to the fact that African sides lacked a little quality when it really mattered and given the way the draw opened up for Croatia, England and Russia, a real chance for African teams has been lost. Salah and Mané were ineffective. Egypt and Tunisia were poor overall. Senegal and Nigeria were good for one game and although Morocco ultimately deserved more than just one point their finishing sometimes left a lot to be desired.

It will be very interesting to see how African football responds to this disappointment as they prepare of Qatar in 2022. A greater mental strength is required as is a greater technical and tactical ability to kill teams off when they are in the ascendency. The world must hope African success at the World Cup isn’t too far away as their teams bring passion, colour, noise and are invariably a joy to watch.

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