By Tyler Duffy
South Africa was awarded the 2010 FIFA World Cup after winning the May 2004 vote with the announcement starting celebrations in the streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town and throughout the entire African continent. The announcement is seen by many in Africa as a harbinger of a new era politically, economically and socially and, perhaps, it will be another great step forward for Africa soccer with teams holding the home-continent advantage for the first time.
African countries have been successful at youth level. Nigeria and Cameroon have each won gold at Summer Olympics, 1996, and 2000, respectively while Ghana has won the Under-20 FIFA World Cup, in 2009. Nigeria – in 1985, 1993, and 2007 - and Ghana – in 1991 and 1995 - have added to their medal haul with victories at Under-17 FIFA World Cups as well.
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But success at the youth level has not translated to success at the senior level. In the previous 18 FIFA World Cups, African sides have advanced to the quarterfinals only twice when Cameroon first achieved this feat in 1990 followed by Senegal in 2002.
Proximity is advantageous at the World Cup. The host country has won the World Cup six times and reached the final eight times and every host nation has advanced from the group round.
The advantage extends to continents. Lumping the Americas together, Brazil is the only country to win a World Cup on a different continent. They did so twice winning in Sweden in 1958 and Korea/Japan in 2002. The home-continent advantage is strong enough for statistical guru to account for it in his projections. Will it be enough for an African team to make a serious showing at this World Cup? Four have a realistic chance.
Cote d’Ivoire: The Ivorians have the best positioned team in a vacuum. They have a well-rounded group of veterans anchored in the middle by Didier Zokora and Kolo and Yaya Toure. Iconic striker Didier Drogba, when he feels like it, can dominate any opponent. Though no luminary, Sven-Goran Eriksson is a seasoned international manager who can organize a squad. The Elephants are a sexy sleeper pick. The trouble is their group.
The Ivorians drew tournament favorites Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Both countries have better squads. Cote D’Ivoire will need a result against at least one of them to advance. Even if they progress, they should have perhaps the toughest road to the final of any team.
The probable route would be Spain in the round of 16, followed by Italy, followed by Germany or Argentina, followed probably by Brazil again. They would need to fight off five of the top seven FIFA rated teams to win the tournament. Cote d’Ivoire might be the best African team, but their draw makes an extended run nearly impossible.
Cameroon: After the Netherlands, Cameroon should be slight favorites to advance over Denmark and Japan. They have been an attacking team under Paul Le Guen, going after teams with an aggressive 4-3-3 formation. The X-factor will be Samuel Eto’o. He has been one of the game’s most prolific strikers historically, though he looked far less explosive after leaving Barcelona. Eto’o scored 16 goals in 47 appearances for Inter Milan. He scored 36 the previous season.
A second-place finish would set Cameroon up against Italy in the first knockout round. The Italians are defending champions, but have done little development since 2006. They have not integrated fresh players, leaving Lippi the choice between aging veterans or younger players with little international experience. Fabio Cannavaro, so essential in 2006, was dreadful at Juventus last season. A young, vibrant Cameroon team could get past them. Unfortunately, the Indomitable Lions would likely look quite domitable against Spain in the quarterfinals.
Ghana: Group D, with Germany, Serbia and Australia, isn’t the most talented group, but it’s the deepest one through four. For Ghana, there is no easy win. The Black Stars can advance, but they need Michael Essien. If he is in top form, they can break up the rhythm in the German and Serbian midfields and compete physically with the Aussies. However, since he has not appeared for Chelsea since December, that seems entirely improbable. Their other standard bearer Stephen Appiah has essentially been out of soccer for two and a half seasons, only just returning with Bologna in May.
If Ghana gets through the group second, they would meet England in the knockout round. The Three Lions would be heavily favored and righty so, but a relapse to the pre-Capello Dark Ages is conceivable. Beyond that, Ghana would then get a doable quarterfinal match, likely against France or Mexico. Ghana could be the first African team in the semifinals. They could also be one of the first African teams eliminated from the tournament.
Nigeria: The statistical projections love them. They are a physical, combative team, but have a few caveats. They changed coaches in February and former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback will have one friendly with his senior squad to organize them. They struggle going forward against competent teams. The Nigerians have not scored two goals against a team that qualified for the World Cup since a 2-2 draw with Mexico in October 2007.
They should be marginal favorites for second in a group with Argentina, South Korea and Greece. Finishing there, they would face the winner of Group A, either France, Mexico or Uruguay. If not eliminated there, they would meet England in the quarterfinals.
Algeria and South Africa: Algeria earned its way to the tournament beating rivals Egypt, perhaps Africa’s best-team, in a playoff, but the Desert Foxes have been woefully inconsistent, losing 3-0 to Malawi, 4-0 to Egypt and 3-0 at home to Serbia since January. It’s unclear how much the home-continent advantage Algeria will really have as well. Most of their players are French citizens. It’s about 5,000 miles from Algiers to Cape Town. That’s roughly the distance from San Francisco to Dublin. Riddled with injuries and scouring the French countryside for tangibly eligible players, it’s hard to see Algeria challenging in Group C.
South Africa qualified automatically as host. They would not have otherwise. The South Africans did not even make the final round of qualifying for the African Nations Cup. That would technically make them not among the 20 best teams, in Africa. Winning a game in front of a home crowd would be a triumph for them, but with depth, talent and stability issues it may be too much to ask.
Successful showings at the World Cup require excellence and ability, but also a bit of luck. While African countries have the talent to advance far into the tournament, injuries and unfortunate draws may prevent them from doing so. Though they will be playing on their home soil for the first time, it is hard to see an African team equating Senegal’s quarterfinal appearance in 2002, much less surpassing it.
HAVE YOUR SAY…
How will African sides fare in South Africa? Will any of the teams advance past the quarterfinals?
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