It’s one of the biggest mysteries in world football, followed closely by why Uruguayan cannibal-cum-footballer Luis Suarez has bitten so many opponents.
But unlike Suarez, African teams at the World Cup have lacked the needed bite to conquer the world. They just nibble at their opponents, produce one remarkable result and then fail despite boasting a galaxy of stars who shine in Europe. And there lies the mystery: why is Africa yet to win a World Cup and could that change in Russia this year?
But before we answer the second question of whether that will change this year, let’s start with the first – why is Africa yet to win the World Cup despite boasting a number of quality players who are so successful with European clubs?
Mohammad Salah has carried Liverpool this season and he is by far the best player in the world. The Egyptian took over the baton of leading the English side from Sadio Mane of Senegal. Mane is so important at Liverpool that the club chartered a private jet to fetch him in Gabon immediately after the Lions of Teranga were knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) earlier last year. And across Europe there are a number of African players who are as important as this pair.
“You ask yourself, what is the problem because the best players in Africa consistently play against the best players of these countries that win the World Cup? And they hold their own against them in Europe. It shouldn’t be that difficult for us then to do well in the World Cup against them,” former Bafana Bafana coach and 2017 African Coach of the Year Pitso Mosimane said.
“Our problem is the organisation. We don’t have proper organisation from the football federations. You know the story. You can’t hide it. It’s there. Are we preparing the teams well? Are we giving the coach enough ammunition and support? When Germany go to the World Cup, they come with a strong technical team with a number of people who bring different expertise. Will Senegal have that for example? Is the coach going to be supported? If you expect the same result you must give the same support.”
Mosimane continued, “The issues we have normally hold us back. Players going on strike on the eve of the World Cup because they haven’t been paid bonuses they were promised. We must sort out the logistics and housekeeping first. When the football federations are government-funded, then you have issues. A minister comes in and wants to impose himself or they want to appoint a coach from a country that his nation has relationships with.”
The Confederation of African Football (Caf) is leading the African associations in sorting out housekeeping before the global showpiece. Moving the Afcon to odd years so that they aren’t in World Cup years has removed the burden of doing well in the continental showpiece with failure to do so having led to many coaches being sacked with the World Cup just months away.
Caf also changed the dates of the 2019 Afcon qualifiers that would have been held in the March Fifa break so as to give Africa’s five representatives at the World Cup – Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia – an opportunity to use that time to play more competitive friendlies to prepare for the global showpiece.
“I am happy that Caf moved those matches to give African teams a chance to prepare properly,” former Uganda coach Micho Sredojevic said. “The financial injection of $500 000 – (just over R6m), to each team that qualified for the World Cup will play an important role because on previous occasions – to use Ghana as an example – laptops and telephones were broken because of (players) demanding incentives (that were promised but never delivered). It looks like everywhere in the world national teams can prepare adequately for the World Cup, except Africa. We remember when Cameroon had to deal with late flights (to Brazil in 2014) and how Ivory Coast also had their problems. Only Algeria didn’t have any conflicts (and they were the best performing nation). What Caf has done to ensure our players only think about football, is a step in the right direction.”
Egypt and Nigeria are the continent’s best hopes in Russia, followed by Morocco whose foundation is a strong defence and then there’s Tunisia and Senegal who it will take something special for them to get out of their groups. But Sredojevic argues that the continent having the best player in the world at the moment, Salah, is both a gift and curse.
“I am telling you, it will be hard for Salah or Mane to go to the World Cup (and put in strong performances like they have done for their club),” Sredojevic said.
“Ronaldinho was by far the best player in Europe in 2006. He went to the World Cup in Germany and he wasn’t the same. Why? Because one player in a season can have seven months of being at the best of his game but when he goes off form, it’s another story. Look at (Lionel) Messi and how he played here in 2010 when (Diego) Maradona was the coach of Argentina, they lost 4-0 to Germany. He was the best player in Europe at the time. My prediction is that it'll be very hard for Salah to keep his form and carry Egypt despite them being in an easy group with Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Russia.”
It’s a bleak analysis. But with the administrators starting to play their part, the players could meet them halfway to break the quarter-finals glass ceiling that has held African nations since Cameroon did so for the first time in 1990.