By Ikem Aginam
Many Africans follow football almost like a “religion”. It is the most popular sport played throughout the continent. For the fans, it is always a pleasure and delight to watch their country grace the biggest football event every four years – the FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, there can only be 32 teams at the FIFA World Cup, with 5 representing Africa.
At the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, there were high hopes that at least one African nation could progress to the quarterfinals. Ghana was the last African team to achieve this at the 2010 World Cup hosted for the first time on the continent by South Africa. The five football teams that represented Africa at the 2018 World Cup were Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. As the group stage of the competition came to a close, Africans were disappointed that for the first time in 36 years, an African team did not qualify for the Round of 16.
Many ex-footballers and African sports analysts were shocked to see this happen. Many people had hoped that it is time for an African side to win the World Cup. But those dreams fell short as Senegal tried to keep African hopes alive but couldn’t because the FIFA rule of Fair Play Points put the Asian giants Japan ahead of them after both teams ended level on points. Ex- Ivorian superstar, Didier Drogba told BBC that Russia 2018 was Africa’s worst performance at a World Cup since Spain 1982. Despite this poor performance, Drogba still predicted a bright future for African football in future World Cups. Now, let’s take a look at these five African teams, and analyse how they fared in Russia.
“The Pharaohs”: EGYPT
This past season, the whole world recognized the skills and qualities of Egypt’s icon, Mo Salah at the club level. His club, Liverpool finished in the top four in the English Premier League, and made an impressive run to the European Champions League Final. Mo Salah, unfortunately, failed to lift The Pharaohs in Russia. He was severely injured weeks before the World Cup by Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid in the European Champions League Final. In my view, Salah shouldn’t have come to the World Cup because his shoulder injury appeared serious. With such injury, he needs time to rest. He was never really involved in the attack when Egypt played Russia. The injury stopped Mo Salah from taking Egypt far in the competition. Egypt shouldn’t feel bad. They haven’t been in the World Cup in the past 40 years. Qualifying to represent Africa in Russia is a positive. They have some promising talents like Trezeguet, Kharba, and their young goal keeper, Mohamed El-Shenawy. They played well as a team collectively against Uruguay, but just couldn’t hold on to the end. After that inspiring performance against Uruguay, many asked, “Do Egypt play better without Salah”? To sum it up, they had a tough stretch but good experience. So sad to hear that their experienced Argentine manager, Hector Cuper resigned after their early exit.
“Les Aigles de Carthage”: Tunisia
The Tunisian football team was rated as one of the weakest teams at this tournament. We didn’t know what to expect from them as they were grouped with two very strong teams: England and Belgium. Their danger man is Sunderland midfielder, Wahbi Khazri. Tunisia looked very promising in their first game against England. They tied the game 1-1, but were stunned by a late Harry Kane goal. It all went downhill when they faced Belgium and got thrashed 5-2. This was the end of their World Cup campaign. It was a very valiant effort trying to surprise England. They need to turn their attention to the next African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and try to make a good run at that tournament.
“Lions of the Atlas”: Morocco
Morocco is one African team that would have surprised us all because of the number of chances they got to score in all 3 group games. Their manager, Herve Renard, is well-known in Africa. He has won two African Cup of Nations trophies with two teams; Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire. There are no big names in the Moroccan team but they have a good mix of experience and youth in the squad. Their most promising player might have been the 25-year old Hakim Ziyech who plays for Ajax Amsterdam. Their most experienced player who could have scored many goals at this World Cup was Medhi Benatia. Morocco was unlucky against Iran. They played far better than Ronaldo’s Portugal but couldn’t take their chances. In football, teams always have to take their chances otherwise the misses will come back to haunt you. We saw a bit of that in the first two games Morocco played against Iran and Portugal. They also played much better against Spain, but were very unlucky to get a draw.
“Lions of Teranga”: Senegal
Senegal were drawn with Poland, Japan, and Colombia. Managed by their former Captain, Aliou Cisse, the Teranga Lions had a lot of promise. Given their pedigree, most people tipped them to go through to the last 16. They fell marginally short after a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Colombia. The likes of Sadio Mane, Niang, Sarr, and Diouf went quiet in the final game, but played exceptionally well against Poland and Japan. They were even more heartbroken when they found out they lost to Japan on Fair Play Points. Fair Play Points rule is used to rank two teams that finish level on points and goal aggregate in the Group stage. It is based on the number of yellow or red cards a team picked up. Senegal were level with Japan on everything (points, goal difference, goals scored etc) but they had 2 yellow cards more than Japan. They finished third behind Japan. Football can be very cruel sometimes when such rules go against your team.
“Super Eagles”: Nigeria
The Super Eagles were very unfortunate to concede an on-goal and a soft penalty in their first game against Croatia. The dazzling Croatian midfield couldn’t break down the Nigerian defense. Croatian midfield quartet of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Brozovic, and Mateo Kovacic is seen by many as the best in the world. All 4 of them play for the best clubs in Europe. The Super Eagles were the only African team to keep a clean sheet in Russia when they beat Iceland 2-0. Also, Nigeria conceded the least number of goals compared to the other 4 African teams. The Super Eagles achieved this in the Group of Death with Argentina, Croatia and Iceland! The Turkish referee let Nigeria down at the crucial game against Argentina when he decided not to award a penalty after the ball clearly hit the hand of an Argentine defender inside the box. Nigeria had their chances against Argentina but could not kill the game as Ighalo, Musa, Iheanacho, Ndidi, and Etebo all missed scoring opportunities. Senegal and Nigeria both deserved to be in the Round of 16.
As Russia 2018 draws to a close with Croatia and France in the final game, it is time for Africa to put this disappointing performance behind. The positive thing is that most African teams came with a young squad. These young players will mature, develop, and grow to truly compete at the World Cup in the next 4 years. The various football federations in Africa should start now to prepare their teams for Qatar 2022.
*Ikem Aginam is passionate about football. He is interested in FIFA, and follows football events including the major leagues in Europe, and African football competitions. He is a fan of the Super Eagles of Nigeria. He is currently a student of The International School of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where he plays for the school basketball and football teams.