Russia 2018: Hopes dashed again as Africa’s World Cup woes continue

Africa recorded yet another disastrous outing at the just-concluded 2018 World Cup in Russia, no thanks to several factors that have perennially confined the continent to football’s backwaters, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA

The overwhelming rave reviews the recent triumph by France’s squad, made up majorly of players of African descent, at the just-concluded 2018 World Cup in Russia, brings to the fore, once more, Africa’s perennial inability to transform the enormous talents on the continent to world beaters.

The French team had 14 players with African fathers, thus sparking up debates and arguments that the continent has what it takes to win the World Cup despite only boasting of three quarter-final appearances as its best outings since 1934, when Egypt first appeared at the tournament.

“The French team looked like an African team; in fact, it was Africa who won. France won thanks to African players or the sons of Africans,” Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said.

But former US President Barack Obama disagrees.

“Just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup… Not all of those folks looked like Gauls to me. But they’re French! They’re French,” Obama stated while in South Africa to commemorate the 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela.

However, football-crazy Africans have been confined to misery every four years as their teams consistently fail to live up to expectations at football’s showpiece event.

Indeed, they rubbished the legendary Pele’s prediction that an African side would lift the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. None has come close with 18 years into the 21st century.

Quarter-final hurdle

Africa’s five representatives in Russia – Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal – all crashed out at the group stage; a far cry from the 2014 edition in Brazil, where Nigeria and Algeria reached the round of 16.

With the performance, the continent suffered its worst World Cup display in 36 years, with none of its sides in the knockout stage for the first time since 1982.

Since 1986 when Morocco became the first African country to advance from the group stage, at least one team from the continent had reached the second round until Russia 2018.

The woeful performance in Russia resulted in 10 defeats, two draws and just three wins from 15 games from the five teams.

The best African fans have had to make do with is to watch their sides crash out of the quarter-finals on three occasions.

Cameroon reached the last eight at Italia ’90, beating defending champions, Argentina, in their opening game with nine men. That memorable outing was spiced with some hip-shaking goal celebrations by the 38-year-old Roger Milla, who hit target four times in that edition.

The Indomitable Lions’ impressive showing made FIFA hand Africa, who had two representatives, an extra slot.

But African football buffs had to endure a 12-year wait to see their team, this time Senegal, reach the quarter-finals again. Like Cameroon, they also beat defending champions France on the way to the last eight.

Eight years later in South Africa, Ghana had one of the most impressive runs by an African team in World Cup history and were on the brink of becoming the first semi-finalists, only to have their dreams shattered as Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty in the dying minutes.

And that has been it.

Eight years on, it’s been tales of woe and misery.

Administrative lapses

Nigeria, with an array of talents, are largely regarded as underachievers, failing to reach the quarter-finals after six attempts and ending up in the round of 16 three times.

Poor administration of the game has been largely responsible for this.

Indeed, Africa’s participation has mostly been tainted by a face-off between players and administrators. Quite often, money meant for preparations are diverted to personal purposes, with officials carrying along their family members, girlfriends and aides to competition venues, with players owed allowances by these same officials.

Though, there was calm in Russia over allowances, which is usually among the sub-Saharan African countries, previously, it destroyed team unity, which translated to woeful performances on the pitch.

At the 2014 edition in Brazil, Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon were involved in rows over money. Three years ago, our correspondent asked former Nigeria defender Taribo West why the Super Eagles continuously found it difficult getting past the second round of the World Cup despite the huge talents in the team.

Without mincing words, he retorted, “Nigerian football is under a curse,” in an interview in the The PUNCH in February 2015.

“Administrators in the past committed a lot of atrocities against Eagles players, and in anger, these players cursed the team.

“Imagine a nation you served, you get injured and nobody cares; they dump you. Look at the way a player like (Rashidi) Yekini served the team and died. It shouldn’t have been. Somebody needs to go to his family and compensate them.

“(Sunday) Eboigbe has been paralysed for years and nobody has gone to see him. Would you say such a man, who gave his best for his country, shouldn’t curse his country?”

Perhaps Taribo, the former Inter Milan, AC Milan defender, who appeared at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, is seeing things from the spiritual angle, having transformed to a pastor since retiring from the game.

One of the highlights of the Korea/Japan 2002 was seeing Taribo, the hard-as-nails defender, caught on global TV shedding tears after the Eagles crashed out in the group stage.

“I was crying because we had no team, no preparation; there was nothing. Football is a team work. I couldn’t combine my job as a player with that of the administrators; it’s not possible.

“England and Sweden were not exceptional. We knew we could beat both countries; it was very painful. The only strong team in our group was Argentina. So, I had no choice but to break down,” Taribo added.

While the versatile defender was forced out of the national side himself, he says that he has now overcome the pain.

“I have forgiven them but look at the way I was sent packing from the national team. I spoke for the young players in the team, who didn’t have a voice and they banned me. Why won’t I be aggrieved? Since then, they haven’t had a good defence,” he said.

Former Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o shares Taribo’s views on the leadership problems in African football. Eto’o, a veteran of the 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, was banned from the national team for starting a boycott over unpaid bonuses in 2011.

“The only problem in Africa is our leaders who do not respect us. Until we are respected, other (continents) will never have any consideration for us,” he said.

Liberia president, George Weah, who won the World, European and African Footballer of the Year awards, agrees that the governing of the sport needs an overhaul.

“Former players govern European football while those without passion or knowledge of the game rule in Africa. Footballers rather than officials should travel business class on flights because they are the ones going to play,” he said.

On-pitch deficiencies

The World Cup has consistently exposed Africa’s lack of tactical and technical discipline as well as players lacking the belief and will to perform at the global level.

At the last World Cup, all five representatives were guilty of same ‘sins.’

They were technically and tactically behind their opponents. In attack, they struggled to score while the midfield lacked creativity and the defences conceded goals at crucial moments — late goals, own goals as well as goals from set-pieces — painfully sometimes through horrific schoolboy errors. This called to question the game management skills of the sides’ foreign coaching crews.

Several of the players failed to raise their game expected on the big stage.

Senegal and Nigeria had the brightest chances of advancing to the knockout stage but blew them away. After winning their first game, the Teranga Lions failed to beat Japan after going ahead twice in their second game. They paid dearly for it in their last game, when they lost 1-0 to Colombia. Though they tied on all other indices with the Japanese, they were knocked out courtesy of the newly-introduced Fair Play Rule, having collected more yellow cards than the Asians.

Nigeria needed a just draw in their final Group D tie versus a fumbling Argentine side who had lost 3-0 to Croatia and were held 1-1 by debutants Iceland.

But the Argentines grabbed the winner with just four minutes left to play to break Nigerian hearts.

“It was a problem of mentality, African teams in Russia lacked self-belief. For the fact that it’s the World Cup, they felt they couldn’t get the job done,” sports broadcaster, Austin Okon-Akpan, who was in Russia, said.

“All Nigeria needed against Argentina was self-belief. Even when it was 1-1, they (Nigeria) had a chance of winning the game but couldn’t take their chances. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli and keeper Franco Armani arrogantly said they knew they had qualified immediately Nigeria beat Iceland. They were so sure of beating us and they did.

“It was a bad campaign for Lionel Messi but his only goal in four games at the tournament was against Nigeria, an African side.

“That wasn’t how France thought; they saw themselves at par with the Argentine superstars and they beat them. Iceland didn’t want to be overwhelmed by Messi and co despite their first World Cup outing and they drew 1-1. Croatia showed they were better prepared and they walloped the Argentines 3-0. So, why was our case different?

“Senegal started well but their poor mentality was their undoing. They failed in the two games that mattered most. Russia and South Korea are not football big names but they got far as hosts of the World Cup because of their mentality. Did that happen with South Africa in 2010? Until African teams imbibe the winning mentality, things will get worse.”

Second-class European coaches to the rescue

A foreign coach has never won the World Cup on any of the 21 occasions it has been held, but just like their national economies, African countries always look to the West for help when in search of coaches, which oftentimes takes their football backwards.

Of the five countries at this year’s World Cup, only Senegal’s Aliou Cisse is African.

The Nigeria Football Federation sacked a local coach, the late Shaibu Amodu, who qualified the team for the 2010 tournament, in favour of Lars Lagerback, who had failed to qualify his own country, Sweden, for the same tournament.

And the Nigerians crashed out without winning any game. Lagerback did not return to the country with the team after collecting his salaries.

A former Nigeria coach, the late Stephen Keshi, was a strong critic of the role of white coaches in African football.

“The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money. They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that’s just the way it is,” Keshi, who won the Africa Cup of Nations as a player and coach, before qualifying and managing the Eagles at the 2014 World Cup, told the BBC in 2013.

Egypt, the most successful football team in the AFCON history, have won the trophy seven times mainly with local coaches. Ghana’s Black Stars won the tournament four times, with a local coach guiding the team on all the occasions.

In his piece titled ‘Coaches exploit lazy African bosses’ on, Matshelane Mamabolo, a South African football writer, shared his view about the influx of half-baked European coaches into African football.

He said, “This (Africa) is the place where no-name coaches come down to teach the natives how to play the beautiful game. Actually, you don’t really need to have coached before. After all, they (African football bosses) believe everything that’s on paper – as long as your CV says you’ve done it, they buy into it. And no, they won’t bother getting confirmation of what you tell them; research is a taboo subject for most of these Africans.

“If you’ve been a beach football coach in your native Brazil, all you need do is omit the word ‘beach’ and you’ve got a job in South Africa. It is true, Emilio Jayr Mazzoni did it and he was Moroka Swallows coach within the blink of an eye.”

He added, “If you have been a physical trainer in Eastern Europe, all the better – they love these types. Kosta Papic came down to Africa and worked in the top footballing countries with top clubs and was feted as a hero for turning their players into super athletes who ran 90 minutes non-stop without winning much.”

Africans and Europeans attend the same coaching courses, yet African FAs still see expatriate coaches above African coaches, and are happy to pay them a far higher salary. However, the continent’s football has failed to improve under foreign coaches, and there is nothing to suggest that it will anytime soon, with Russia 2018 the latest proof.

Africa on the receiving end?

Africans have often raised concerns about being treated unfairly during critical situations at the World Cup.

The elimination of Algeria in 1982 is an example of an African team being on the receiving end of decisions. Having beaten West Germany and Chile, Algeria slipped up against Austria – but still had a chance of advancing unless West Germany beat Austria 1-0 or 2-0.

The Germans went ahead early on against Austria and both sides stopped competing once they realised how the score would benefit them. Despite calls for the game to be replayed or both sides punished, FIFA didn’t take any action. It did have an impact though, with the world football body ruling that in future, the last pair of group games must be played at the same time.

In Russia, the continent’s football followers felt the Fair Play Rule was a cruel way for Senegal to exit the tournament after they tied on points with Japan.

Nigeria also complained about being denied a penalty by the Video Assistant Referee in their crucial encounter against Argentina after Marcos Rojo’s hand intercepted the ball inside the box.

But Okon-Akpan, shrugs off the argument with a wave of the hand, insisting that it’s the usual thing for African teams to complain after failing at tournaments.

“We always put ourselves in a position where we feel we have been robbed or not favoured. I attended a press conference after the Nigeria-Argentina game and Pierluigi Collina (FIFA referees chief) explained everything. We had a player who the ball fell to after the foul. He only complained after he kicked the ball far and wide. Would he have complained if he had scored?” he argued.Political/socio-economic factors

The teams’ outings also could be traced political and socio-economic factors. Africa’s brightest talents are often offloaded quite early to Europe and other parts of the world, and then find it difficult to cope with the African environment and style on their return to play for their countries.

“Africans must show the same desire and discipline when playing for their country that they do when playing for European clubs,” John Barnes, who represented England at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, told SuperSport recently.

The political and economic situation in Africa sub-Sahara Africa has led to massive migration from the continent, and children born to these immigrants would rather lace their boots for their countries of birth.

No change in sight

While other continents have begun preparations for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, as usual, African teams seem to have their fingers firmly stuck on the self-destruct buttons.

A case in point is Nigeria. Rather than start preparations for the next edition, the NFF is already embroiled in a new political debacle, which has split the federation into two factions: the FIFA-recognised Amaju Pinnick board and the Federal Government-backed Chris Giwa, who assumed leadership of the football body while Pinnick was away on FIFA duty in Russia.

Recall that in Brazil 2014, same scenario played out after the Super Eagles reached the last 16 of the World Cup, which culminated in their failure to qualify for the next two AFCONS, which had never happened in the country’s history.

Is it another recipe for doom in Qatar come 2022?

“Instead of us to have a proper audit of the 2018 World Cup, work on our weaknesses and chart a way forward, we are in the middle of a political crisis. Is that the way to go? There’s a tendency we may not qualify for a third consecutive AFCON,” Okon-Akpan said.

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