Colorful, fast and fiercely determined, African football heads to the World Cup.
This summer, the football World Cup is going home. Dreamt up in the 1920s by a Frenchman and administered from FIFA* headquarters in Switzerland, the tournament has taken place across the soil of 15 different host countries since 1930.
The previous competition, hosted by South Africa in 2010, was the first time the World Cup was held on the African continent, leaving long-lasting memories of exuberant vuvuzela-tooting fans. Local supporters in South Africa took the brave Ghanaian team into their hearts, adopting it under the nickname “BaGhana BaGhana” after their own team (known as Bafana Bafana) was knocked out. The swashbuckling Ghanaians made it to the final eight, only to be cruelly eliminated in a penalty shootout by Uruguay. A continent held its breath and started to dream that, soon, an African nation would be crowned world champions.
Four years on, and the World Cup is back at the forefront of every football fan’s mind. The continent’s hopes are rekindled once again, yet few fans of the world’s most-popular sport would dispute that if there is one nation on earth to which the World Cup can be said to belong, it is Brazil.
Of all 19 previous tournaments, Brazil has won the title five times — more than any other nation. Usually, no two football fans can agree on anything. Yet there is an international consensus on two facts: that the greatest team ever to have played the sport was the Brazilian team that triumphed in Mexico in 1970; and that the talisman of that team — the electric forward known as Pelé — is the best footballer of all time. Pelé holds the world record for goal scoring and is the only player ever to win three World Cups, his first when he was just 17 years old. In Brazil, he is known simply as O Rei (“The King”).
Brazil goes into this year’s tournament as the undisputed favorite to carry off trophy No. 6, what with the whole football-mad nation cheering them on, a young and talented squad, and the tactical cunning of “Big Phil” Scolari — the wily coach who led the team to victory at the 2002 World Cup.
Yet Brazilians will be haunted by the memory of the only other time their nation hosted the World Cup. In 1950, a giftedseleção(the Brazilian nickname for the national team) swept through all the competition until Uruguay, a match that Brazil was widely expected to win with ease. The nation prepared to celebrate its first world title. Instead, an estimated crowd of more than 200,000 watched in shock as the tiny neighboring country claimed the trophy with a winning goal just 10 minutes from the end. The devastating defeat, known as the Maracanaço, is still mourned as a Brazilian national tragedy.
The stakes this summer could not be higher. A second failure in a home World Cup — a second Maracanaço — is a terrifying prospect for Brazilian fans.
Challenges to brazilian dominance
The main threat is Spain. La Furia Roja are the world’s most-feared team, ranked No. 1 globally. They will arrive in Brazil as reigning World Champions (2010) and double European Champions (2008 and 2012). Already, some pundits claim that Spain’s current dominance means it ought to be seriously considered one of the greatest sides in the history of the sport. If Spain can do what no team has ever done — successfully defend the World Cup at the home of football — the debate will be over: Pelé’s Brazilian team of 1970 will no longer be considered the best ever, and football will have reached a new zenith.
To add to the intrigue, Spain’s most exciting player is a Brazilian. The ferocious striker Diego Costa last year made the astonishing decision to reject the country of his birth and instead represent Spain, where he is a naturalized citizen. Due to the team’s rich wealth of talent in midfield, Spain has sustained its success in recent years despite not boasting a top-level center-forward. In Costa, the team now has one of the world’s elite strikers, and the Brazilians are furious. “He is turning his back on the dreams of millions,” seethed national coach Scolari, on hearing that Costa had chosen Spain.
The only outcome that would be worse for Brazil than a Spanish victory would be an Argentinean one. The two nations are old foes, having jointly dominated South American football for many decades. The one serious rival to Pelé in the pantheon of the sport’s greatest players is Diego Armando Maradona, who in 1986 captained Argentina to its second world title.
Argentina has performed disappointingly in the past few World Cup tournaments, but just as in 1986, the team will once again have the world’s best player: the astounding Barcelona forward Lionel Messi (four times crowned world player of the year). If he can repeat Maradona’s achievement of carrying a solid but unspectacular generation of teammates to the World Cup, he will likely be seen as having surpassed not just El Diego, but Pelé too.
And then, of course, there are the Germans, four-time world champions. This time around, Germany goes into the tournament with a hugely talented squad drawn in large part from Bayern Munich, currently the dominant club in world football. The well-oiled team blends seasoned veterans with young, exciting attacking players. It would be a surprise if Die Mannschaft weren’t a major threat at this World Cup.
The future of football: Africa?
Back in 1977, Pelé insisted that an African team would be world champions by the year 2000. Fourteen years into the new millennium, Africa is still awaiting its first World Cup semifinalist, although Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) have all reached the last eight.
Although few expect to see an African name on the World Cup trophy in July, five qualifying teams have set their sights on Brazil to fight hard for the chance. European bookmakers slate Côte d’Ivoire as the most likely of the African sides to do well, mainly due to the relatively kind draw that will see the Elephants take on Colombia, Greece and Japan in Group C.
In truth, the best years of Côte d’Ivoire’s golden generation — of Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers — are behind it, and the younger generation of players has struggled to step up. And yet, even with an inexperienced coach in Sabri Lamouchi and a somewhat patchy squad, the country should have enough to make it into the knockout round.
Africa’s two best teams are Ghana, whose thrilling run to the quarter-finals of the last tournament remains seared into the memory of African supporters, and reigning continental champions Nigeria.
The Black Stars possess a fluid, disciplined and cohesive team, and an impressive coach in James Kwesi Appiah. With flair players such as Christian Atsu, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Dede Ayew, they have a wealth of potential match-winners. The difficulty for Ghana will be a very tough draw, which has placed them in Group G alongside Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and the United States of America. That said, the Black Stars defeated the USA in each of the past two tournaments, and if they can take three points from that tie and find a draw with one of the European sides, they’ll have an excellent chance of making it into the next round, where they’d be a real threat to any team.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria will face a difficult tie against Argentina but also very winnable matches against Iran and first-time finalists Bosnia. Under Stephen “Big Boss” Keshi, the African champions have developed into a gritty and resolute international side that is always tough to beat. Chelsea’s vastly experienced midfielder John Obi Mikel remains the lynchpin, and Nigeria is no stranger to the World Cup, having appeared at the tournament on four previous occasions.
Super Eagles fans will be praying there is no repeat of the team’s shambolic display in South Africa four years ago, and they will take heart from a spirited qualifying campaign that saw them overcome a brave Ethiopian side in the winner-takes-all playoff round. The Walias had overcome all odds to reach that tie, dumping giants South Africa in the group stage and wowing international audiences with their bold attacking football and ear-splittingly loud supporters. But the Walias finally came unstuck against a tough Nigeria side.
The fate of Cameroon and Algeria is more difficult to predict. Algeria is in Group H with a much-fancied Belgian side, as well as Russia and South Korea. Having struggled to score in recent tournaments, the Fennec Foxes may find this tournament difficult.
In Group A against host Brazil, Cameroon will also play Mexico and Croatia, two nations that — like the Indomitable Lions themselves — boast high-caliber players who have struggled in recent years. In Nicholas N’Koulou, Alex Song and the great Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon possesses the spine of a decent team, but it would be a surprise if the team were to repeat the kind of heroics that saw the legendary Roger Milla dancing by the corner-flag for the world’s cameras back in 1990.
The World Cup’s return to its spiritual home this June promises four weeks chock-full of glamour and goals. Even as Brazil hopes to take the big trophy, the five African nations that journey to Brazil know that should they manage to leave their mark, they will never be forgotten. And each time they take to the field across the 12 host cities, they will have a whole continent at their back, rooting for them to score and praying for them to win. In bars and beer halls, in shebeens and schoolyards, from the grandest city center to the farthest rural hamlet, all across Africa they will watch and they will listen. A whistle will sound thousands of miles away, and the beautiful game will begin on its greatest stage.