Africa’s finest making a mockery of Pele’s prediction
Brazilian legend’s faith in continent’s teams seem misplaced after another World Cup writeoff
Cape Town, South Africa
Monday, Jun. 21, 2010
Pele was wrong.
But now he has plenty of company, a wide slice of the football world who thought that bringing the World Cup to Africa would inspire greatness from the six sides the continent sent to the tournament.
Back in the 20th century, Pele predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by the time it was done (to be honest, Pele says all kinds of stuff, and his batting average isn’t all that great). Though it didn’t come to pass – it was never even really close – there were enough encouraging signs through the 1990’s to suggest that it was only a case of destiny delayed.
At Italia 90, Cameroon made their memorable run to the quarter finals led by the amazing Roger Milla. Four years later when the tournament was played for the first time in the United States, Nigeria made its World Cup debut with a golden generation of talent. They won their group, and almost knocked out eventual finalist Italy before falling in the round of sixteen. Two years after that, Nigeria won the soccer gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, a showcase for players under 23 years of age.
At the same time a new wave of African stars began to make their presence felt with the very best sides in Europe.
But the great World Cup breakthrough remained elusive. Senegal knocked off the defending champions France to open the 2002 World Cup, but that turned out to be their peak. Four years ago, a young Ghanaian side played well before losing to Brazil in the round of sixteen.
Surely this time it would be different, because the African countries would finally benefit from the advantage teams from every other part of the world had enjoyed at least once in the World Cup; a continental home field.
Africa is an enormous, wildly diverse place, so it’s naïve to suggest that Ghana or Algeria feels especially at home in South Africa. Still, the six teams (including the host) from the continent figured to at least be less discombobulated by the experience than those coming from afar.
Why it hasn’t panned out that way, why in this final week of group play, it seems entirely possible that not a single African side will advance to the knockout rounds, is a complicated question. Key injuries are certainly part of the story. Ghana, the best African team here, is without midfielder Michael Essien, and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, dominant at Chelsea this past season is playing with a broken arm.
But that doesn’t explain why Cameroon is already officially done, why the home team is on life support, needing to a huge win over France today even to have a chance of going on – a predicament no other World Cup host has ever faced.
Portugal’s stylish 7-0 destruction of North Korea on Monday pretty much ended Ivory Coast’s hopes. They’re out if Brazil and Portugal play to a draw, or if Portugal wins, and the massive goal differential means even if Portugal loses and Ivory Coast defeat the North Koreans, it will have to be by an enormous score.
Nigeria and Algeria, both last in their groups, could still get through, but a whole bunch of things would have to go right. (The Algerians, based on their game against England, can at least be said to have overachieved here, after arriving burdened with extremely modest expectations)
The only African side that controls its own destiny is Ghana – and they have the unenviable task now of trying to take at least a point from a German team that’s hurting from its shock loss to Serbia, that needs a result to insure moving on, and that has a long World Cup history of coming through in the crunch.
The African problem isn’t individual talent, and given the various hired guns in their coaching ranks, the problem shouldn’t be tactical. But this is a competition of teams, assembled quickly at the end of the European season, and maybe there’s something in that – the fact that these are mostly citizens of the world, football mercenaries, that London or Barcelona or Milan is more their home than here.
Or perhaps, like Pele, we got a little overly romantic in anticipation of this remarkable event, we wanted a historic result to go with the setting, and the truth is it just wasn’t there.