It was as long ago as 1977 when Pele famously stated that an African team will lift the World Cup before the end of that century. That prediction, unfortunately, proved to miss the mark. But the Brazilian legend is not the only person to have suggested it wouldn’t be too long before one of the African nations join that elite group and wins the biggest prize in world football, if not in world sport.
There have been moments when a team has seemed quite promising, notably Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010, who let’s not forget were a missed penalty and goal line handball away from reaching the semi-finals. That is only three nations from a whole continent, and though it is good on one hand that different teams have featured in that list, why hasn’t one team been able to use the momentum from their success and go on to become a dominant name in not just African but world football? For all the promise, development and progress seem to have stalled. Is that fair, or true, and if it is why has that happened?
There will always be so-called golden generations where a perfect storm of players mature at just the right time and lead that nation to hitherto unthought of success. This tends to be short-lived, and though it is good to enjoy it at the time, and ride the crest of the wave while it’s happening, one eye should always be looking over the horizon to how this success can be used to lay the foundations of a future in which finishing in the last 16, 8, even 4 of the World Cup is not a surprise but an expectation.
The World Cup will soon be expanded to 48 teams, which has been held up as something that will help the likes of Africa. Yes, on the one hand, having more countries there to experience the tournament will help, but there were five at the tournament in Brazil, with only two getting out of the group stages and none progressed past the following round. Having more teams there is only a tiny part of a possible solution.
The most important, and obvious step to producing a side capable of making waves on the world stage is to produce world quality players. Though there are still many African players playing their trade in Europe’s top leagues, the number doing it at the very top clubs on a consistent basis is small. When will be the next time a team favorite to win the Champions League feature an African-born player?
Something that African teams need to make more use of, and there are definite signs this is beginning to happen, is the change in FIFA’s nationality laws, meaning that players who have played for another nation’s U21 team can subsequently play for another nation they qualify for by virtue of their blood. European country’s teams are littered with players who could have been eligible for an African nation. Though it is unrealistic to expect everyone this affects to suddenly be available and willing to play for the country of their birth is unrealistic, there is a huge pool of talented players that can be utilized better.
Another move in the right direction, albeit painfully slowly, is the use of indigenous coaches. It is always easy to go for the generic European or South American name, but the late Stephen Keshi’s success in Nigeria has hopefully paved the way for other talented African managers to follow in his footsteps.
The World Cup in Russia next year may be too soon for an African victory, but it certainly should not be too soon to see some form of progress. This is something that the continent as a whole can build on. And perhaps there is even hope to take Qatar, which in itself could be the perfect setting for an African team to make history.