African teams have become regulars at the World Cup for the past 4 decades. As the game of football has become increasingly global, the top clubs in the world have been sending their scouts to all corners of Africa in an effort to find the next Weah, Essien, Drogba or Eto’o.
African born players have for a long time been very successful in the top leagues as individuals. George Weah, Abedi Pele, and Rabah Madjer have lead their teams to many a championship or cup finals.
Unfortunately when it came to playing for their national team, their teammates were just not good enough or there weren’t enough qualification spots allotted to African teams in order for these world class players to showcase their talents on an international stage. I believe one of the greatest tragedies in World Cup football, was that Weah never played at the highest international level. The Liberian forward was poetry in motion. A strong player, blessed with wonderful ball skills, he graced the pitch wherever he played. He won European and World football player of the year in 1995 at Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan and won Serie A titles with the Rosseneri. He finally retired in 2003 a decorated club player but never could achieve any international glory.
It’s because of players like Weah, Pele etc… that the road was paved for African players to play top flight football. As European clubs signed more and more promising African players; their respective countries could now boast multiple accomplished players playing for their nation. However, it wasn’t until the 2006 World Cup that African countries were considered a legitimate threat to the traditional South American and European powerhouses.
Sure, African nations had progressed beyond the second round, most notably Cameroon in the 199o World Cup in the Italy (lost in quarterfinals to England), lead by the most indomitable of all lions, Roger Milla and Senegal in 2002 in South Korea and Japan; and they certainly caused the occasional upset (Nigeria winning their group in 04 and beating Spain 3-2 in 98).
In Germany though, the Ivory Coast and Ghana boasted two of the worlds top 10 players at the time in Didier Drogba and Michael Essein but they also possessed other stars as well. Both teams were strong and athletic, were well organized and coached and were talked about as definite second rounders, and potentially quarter and even semi finalists (all except the US pundits who went “Ghana? Not a problem” when the US were drawed in the same group).
Ghana did get out the group by beating the US and tying the Czech Republic but lost in the second round to Brazil and a rejuvenated Ronaldo. The Ivory Coast on the other hand were incredibly unlucky as they were in the dreaded “group of death” with perennial favorites Argentina and Netherlands and a Serbian and Montenegrin team who was not to be taken lightly. They played very well but in the end their inexperience cost them and they were knocked out of the group stage.
This time around the summer spectacle is being hosted on their home continent. They will be cheered by all African fans and have had 4 more years to gain valuable international and tournament experience and know how. Including hosts South Africa who have an automatic bid, the African teams consist of Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
Group C – Algeria, England, Slovenia and USA.
As mentioned in our preview of the Desert Foxes, they are a young attacking team who qualified for the World Cup by beating African Nations Cup winners Egypt in a playoff. They possess some talented players but their main role in Group C is to play the role of spoiler. No one expects them to qualify for the second round but their attacking prowess can cause problems for the other three teams especially if they are viewed as an “easy win”.
2010 prediction - Last in group, 2 losses 1 draw.
Group A – France, Mexico, Uruguay and South Africa.
No host nation has never not qualified for the second round. In the 2002 World Cup, the general consensus was that the co-hosting nations would not get past the opening rounds Not only did Japan and South Korea win their groups but South Korea exceeded all expectations by reaching the semi-finals and losing a close game to Germany courtesy of a Ballack goal. South Africa are the lowest ranked nation at their party, but if they were to get out of any group this would be the one to do it. France are not the team they once used to be and are under managerial turmoil. Both Mexico and Uruguay had rocky roads toward qualifying and will be trying to find their feet before South Africa.
The hosts will be boosted by a huge sense of national pride, screaming fans and the relentless sounds of the Vuvezla’s. In this weak group, that added “12th man” might propel them to a draw or two and a surprise win. Lead by EPL veterans Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy, they will have the hopes of nation on their shoulders. If they do progress out of this group (and that is slim to none), they will meet Group B winners (either Argentina or Nigeria) and it will be here that their journey will end.
2010 prediction – Third in group, 2 losses 1 win.
Group E – Cameroon, Denmark, Japan and The Netherlands
Cameroon has been to more world cups then any other African nation. Since 1982 when they made their first appearance they have qualified for every world cup but 2; but aside from a glorious run in 1990 when they lost in the quarterfinals, they have been eliminated in the first round every time. This time the Indomitable Lions are managed by legendary French coach Paul Le Guen who was known for getting the most out of his players at French club Lyon and lead by Inter Milan striker Samuel Eto’o.
They’re also in a fairly easy group. The Dutch should easily win the group and Japan should be everyone’s whipping boy, so the big game will be the second group game on June 19th when Cameroon face Denmark. Denmark are an experienced side but are one of the older teams in the tournament. Cameroon boast a solid midfield and if they can keep their cool and play a disciplined game should come out as winners.
Their reward for finishing second will be a second round game against cup holders Italy. The Italians are a shell of their 2006 winning side but still possess enough attacking skill and defensive know how to win their own group. Both teams have had trouble finding the back of the net (though both contain world class strikers) and this game could very well come down to penalties. If it does then my money is on Buffon, possibly the worlds best keeper and excellent penalty saver to end Cameroons World Cup dreams and send the Lions packing.
2010 prediction – Second in group, 2 wins 1 loss, knocked out in round of 16
Group G – Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea and Portugal
The Ivory Coast is by far the best African team at the world cup. They have class at every position minus goalkeeper. Didier Drogba is one of the top 5 strikers in the world, their midfield of Yaya Toure, Zokora, Keita and either Kalou or Gervinho is experienced and can measure up to any other they face. Their defense is lead by EPL veterans Kolo Toure and Eboue and the “African Roberto Carlos” Arthur Boka who bombs up and down the wing for VfB Stuttgart.
The Elephants could be a semi-final team but they also could very easily not make it out of the group such is their luck and the craziness of Group G. Not much is known about North Korea, though one has a hard time imagining them getting any points from this group. Brazil are always pre-tournament favorites and though they had a rough qualifying campaign, one would be mad to write off Portugal. Any one of these teams could on their day beat the other.
Second place gets you out of the group but you’re first second round opponent is Spain, another pre-tournament favorite. All in all its a mess. The Ivory Coast first meet Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. on June 15th. Both teams have strong attack minded players but I give the Ivory Coast the edge when it comes to defensive responsibilities.
If they can win against the Portuguese and get a draw against Brazil, and their last game should be a win against minnows North Korea – they could very well top the group. If this were to happen, their second round opponent would be a relatively easy game against probably Chile or Switzerland, and they would likely meet the Dutch in a mouth-watering quarterfinal. Holland are a a group of savvy veterans who play great possession football but I think with the heat, the crowd noise and Ivory Coasts all around class and depth, they could well become the first African nation to make it to the semis.
Then again. If they start poorly with a draw or a loss to Portugal, they would have to fight to even get out of the group let alone finish second. If they do finish behind Brazil or Portugal, Spain will be too much for them in round of 16 and though an improvement on 06, the elephants will go home disappointed.
2010 prediction – Second in group, 1 win, 1 draw and a loss, knocked out by Spain in the round of 16.
Group D – Australia, Germany, Ghana and Serbia
Ghana are not necessarily in the “group of death” as none of the teams are great. Its more like the “group of a painful bite which might get infected later if you don’t treat it”. The teams are very good though. Germany are always a team to contend with and Serbia are a tight knit crew that play excellent team football. Australia will look to improve on the 2006 world cup campaign and boast some very good EPL players (Cahill and Schwarzer).
Ghana have an incredibly strong engine with Chelsea’s Essien and Inter Milans Sulley Muntari running the show. They’re also incredibly young and several of their 2009 under 20 winning world cup team will be able to contribute to this years world cup run.
There will be a lot of hard fought draws between all these teams but when it all shakes out, I predict that Germany and Ghana will advance. Ghana’s youth can be a boon or a burden depending on how disciplined the players need to be. Essien’s health will also be a key factor. His veteran leadership will help corral the youngsters and his amazing all round play will most certainly dictate how The Black Stars will do. If they finish second they will more than likely meet England in the round of 16. Their youth will certainly give the slow English centerbacks some troubles but England are too strong all around and it will be a dour 1-0 affair.
If they win the group which they very well could with all teams taking points of each other, they would probably have a rematch of their 2006 group game with the USA. Possessing much of the same squad as 06, they will take the same aggressive physical tactics they did against The Yanks in Germany. The USMNT though are a much better team then they were 4 years ago and this is a much more evenly match contest. As it often does in this situation, the match will probably come to penalties and though Kingson is a very good keeper, Howard is a better shot blocker and US squeaks bye 4-3 on penalties.
2010 prediction - Second in group 2 draws and a win, knocked out by England in the round of 16.
Group B – Argentina, Greece, Nigeria and South Korea.
Nigeria have the easiest group to get out of and once out, the easiest path to the quarters out of all the African teams. They, from a world cup perspective have been consistently the most successful of the African Nations in that they have qualified for the knockout stages multiple times.
The Super Eagles are a technically strong side and are solid all over the pitch. Leading the line is the “Yak” who plays his football in the EPL with Everton. He will be fed the ball by fellow premier leagues, John Obi Mikel and Dickson Etuhu and the defense will be well-marshaled by Yobo. Their strength though lies in their bench where the super eagles have attacking specialists, Kanu and Obafemi Martins at their disposal.
Both South Korea and Greece can on their day give the Nigerians some trouble, but those should be wins for the African team. It will be there first game against Argentina on June 12th that will determine who wins the group. Argentina possess possibly the worlds finest attacking force lead by Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Tevez but behind defensive midfielder and captain, Javier Mascherano, their defense is creaky at best. If Nigeria can nullify the attacking onslaught that will be throw at them, then they very easily could nip in behind the slow as molasses defense and score a goal.
Regardless if they win their group or finish second their round of 16 opponents will be coming from Group A, a weaker group that Nigeria should be able to handle. From there they will more than likely meet a northern European team in the quarters. They will certainly have the crowd on their side and with possible history in the making, have a chance of making the semis. They will have to make no mistakes though and Nigeria’s physical style of play can often get them in card trouble.
2010 prediction – First in group, 2 wins and a draw, Knocked out in quarterfinals.
The African teams as a whole will do well. At least three will make the knock out stages and with a little luck and perfect play, Ivory Coast has a very good chance to make the semis. I believe though that after all is said and done, Nigeria will progress the furthest. They have the easiest path and after Ivory Coast the most talented squad, but I think we will have to wait to at least another 4 years before an African team can make a serious run toward the final. BUT who knows…I could be completely wrong and in a way I hope I am. Even though, the summer spectacle (actually it will be “winter” over there) is being held in South Africa, all the African nations will be treating their games as if they were on home soil and that “12th man” will be a huge advantage.