Growing up in Europe, I quickly became fond of the game. I loved watching the Premier League and Champions League, as well as the European Championship and qualification process for both that tournament, and the World Cup. Witnessing so much European football, and becoming familiar with various European teams, when it came time for the World Cup, I was excited to watch teams from other regions of the world play. In particular, Africa.
Giant-killings can occur on any given day
The tactics and style of play is so different, and the players often focus on stamina and speed just as much as technical footwork ability. There was always something special about watching these men, proudly representing their nation, face-off against giants like Germany or France. They would always be placed as underdogs, however, they were arguably no weaker than their opponents; they just had strengths in different areas. As always in soccer, giant-killings can occur on any given day, and there is plenty of evidence of this in recent time.
The first World Cup that I was truly invested in, was 2010 in South Africa. The first to be held on the continent, I found the whole atmosphere electric and truly fascinating. Soccer is perhaps one of the cheapest sports to play, and for so many people in places like Africa who are less fortunate than many in the US or in Europe, soccer is a way to have fun and express oneself without spending a lot of money. In 2010, five teams, along with host South Africa, qualified from the African region. This has been deemed by FIFA as too few, hence the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in the coming episodes.
This is very exciting to me, as it means that we will be able to witness more “underdog” teams in the tournament. I disagree with the new structuring, however, that is for another article. As stated, back in 2010, five teams qualified: Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. All of these teams had something about them that not only allowed them to surpass their African rivals, but also allowed them to play in 2010 with passion, creating some truly memorable moments. South Africa beat France, Algeria tied with England, and Ivory Coast drew with Portugal. Ghana enjoyed a run into the knockout stages, beating the US in the round of 16, and finally losing out to Uruguay in the quarter finals on penalty kicks. South Africa 2010 was a tournament that introduced the world to the African soccer experience, and it is one that I will most definitely never forget, and neither should the rest of the world.
Brazil 2014 was also a special tournament, as the beautiful game returned home to the nation who has had the most success in the competition. Interestingly, the exact same African quintet qualified for the Brazil tournament as did the South African four years prior. Again, we saw some quality performances from the African nations, with Ghana drawing with eventual champions Germany, and this time two teams reaching the knockout stages. Algeria were knocked out of the tournament, by the same German team as their Ghanaian rivals tied with during pool play, after extra time. Nigeria were eliminated by a French team that was vastly superior to the one four years prior. The Super Eagles also narrowly lost to runners up Argentina in the group stage, missing out on points due to a masterclass from one Lionel Messi.
This time around in Russia, five teams from Africa will again be hoping to make their region proud. After the same group went to two consecutive tournaments, it is easy to suggest that these teams are powerhouses in the area. This is a fairly truthful argument. That group of five not only bested all African rivals during two consecutive qualification processes, but also gave us quality performances at the World Cups. When we think of African soccer, we think of Cameroon’s Roger Milla or Samuel Eto’o, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, or Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Okocha. Even today, four years on, they still all have quality players and play attractive soccer.
For this years’ tournament, however, only one of the previous quintet made it, with the others falling during what is a tricky qualification process. African coaching is getting better year on year, leading to players like Sadio Mane and Mo Salah reaching stardom, and allowing coaches and players to breakout all over the continent. What I see shaping up over in Africa is a positive shift in mindset. The successes of the players mentioned creates a much larger demographic of young players back at home, and in turn in Europe. They say that they will be the next Didier Drogba, or Jay-Jay Okocha , the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and why shouldn’t we believe them? This drastic change is impossible to ignore, as it not only suggests that the region is getting more powerful, but also implies that the African trophy drought will definitely be ending sooner rather than later.
African nations will be galvanized
The nations that made it to the World Cup this time around are Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. These nations all have been at the finals before, but some have been absent for a number of years, again suggesting how much of a rebuild and period of growth that many African nations have been going through. This change will likely cause the teams to be galvanized, finally hoping to achieve success for Africa. It is not too big of a reach to say that one of these five teams could achieve this goal during this summer in Russia. Very few people will admit to this; this is a fact that might just come back to bite those that write off non European or South American teams due to numbers and statistics.
All five teams have enough quality across the field to be successful. Clearly, each nation was strong enough to prevent the previous powerhouses in the region from qualifying for a third straight year. Morocco, for example, failed to concede a goal during qualification. Their qualification group included Ivory Coast, as well as a electric Gabon side, and a well drilled Mali team that has reached the latter parts of the African Cup of Nations during the last couple of years. Morocco have enough to frustrate opponents in Russia, and they also have the quality to score goals too, netting 11 in their 6 games during qualifying. They are in a tricky group, but they are to be taken seriously. They are definitely not there to make up the numbers. Spain and Portugal will need to be at their best to not be shown up during the group stage matches.
Senegal also qualified from a tough group, featuring champions of Africa Burkina Faso. They topped their group largely thanks to their squad talent and depth. Again, this nation has been dealt a tough group in Russia, but players like Liverpool’s Sadio Mane will be relishing the opportunity to reach the latter stages of the competition. Senegal arguably have the best chance for success, as deemed by several pundits, of all of the African teams in attendance. They have quality all over the field, and will run opponents into the ground. Placed in Group H, they will have to maneuver around a plucky Japan side, as well as best Colombia and Poland. This is by no means an easy task, but Senegal could definitely get the job done. Don’t rule them out.
A very talented DR Congo side
Mane’s club teammate Mo Salah will also be hoping to do the same with Egypt. The Pharaohs bested Ghana, as well as a plucky Uganda side during qualification, and the players in the side continued their form on the field for their club teams too. Salah might just be in the running for a Ballon D’Or, and Arsenal man Mohamed Elneny, for me, was the Gunners player of the season. If they can hit the ground running in Russia, the sky is the limit, and with a favorable group, perhaps Salah’s season of dreams will continue in Russia.
On paper, Tunisia had a simple group during qualification , however, almost lost out to a very talented DR Congo side. It took some magic from some of their star players to squeeze through to Russia. Arguably the weakest of the five teams from Africa, they are still not to be taken lightly. The team is full of big, strong players, and having just beaten Costa Rica in a friendly, they have shown to be able to compete with teams that play a variety of styles. Drawn with the likes of Belgium and England, as well as newcomers Panama, Tunisia will need to get a result against a big team in order to escape their group. Knowing the consistency, or rather lack of it, in both English and Belgian performances on the big stage, Tunisia still have a fighting chance.
Nigeria were the only team to make it from the previous set of tournaments. They definitely had the most difficult path to Russia, drawn against Cameroon and Algeria, as well as another recent African champion in Zambia. The Super Eagles worked hard, and managed to make it to Russia for the summer. The squad features some familiar names like Ahmed Musa and John Obi Mikel, but also has promising striker Junior Lokosa, who plays in Nigeria for Kano Pillars, and has scored 17 goals in 18 matches this past season. Another player to watch is Simeon Nwankwo who plays in Italy for Crotone. The 28 year old forward scored 6 in his last 7 for his club, and has at least earned a call up to the national team. Nigeria are definitely a threat, but again will have to replicate their success during qualification to get out of a tricky group, which includes Iceland and Croatia, challenges in themselves, as well Argentina, a team who they can’t seem to escape in the group stages of World Cups as of late.
“What should happen”
As previously mentioned, the 2018 World Cup might just be the most competitive yet, with all 32 teams realistically being able to see a path for success and a deep run into the knockout stages of the competition. Almost everyone will rule them out, stating that they don’t have the technical ability or experience for success. This might be partially true, but soccer is not a sport that is run by statistics or “what should happen”. The fact of the matter is that the five teams in attendance in Russia have a fantastic opportunity to finally reach the latter stages. At that point, who knows what could happen. All five nations have plenty of talent, and more than enough passion and gumption to beat just about anybody. I’m not going to argue that they are favorites, nor will I be shocked to see all five nations eliminated early. However, they all stand a chance and will do everything to seize that chance. They should not be ruled out just because they don’t play European style soccer. I know that each and every player representing one of these teams will make their nation proud and play their heart out, and who knows, we might just see one of them lifting the trophy in July. Now would be a perfect time for a team from one of the less successful regions in world soccer to step up and take the fight to the Europeans and South Americans, proving the doubters wrong.
This article was originally posted here.
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