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Limited success of African football at Africa’s World Cup

Gerard Akindes
Ohio University

During the first round of the World Cup, game after game, many commentators and analysts mentioned that, for the first time in the history of the World Cup, Africa had 6 representatives. In fact, it was the highest African representation ever at the FIFA World Cup. Knowing the long path travelled by African countries to have more teams qualified for the World Cup, the frequent reference by numerous European and USA media outlets to the exceptional number of African teams as well as the risk of not having no more than one passing the first round echoed  various messages. These comments often resonate as "It is unfortunate; Africa is playing at home but is not performing very well" or "So many African teams but very few wins."  Additional details on the representation and performance of African teams at the World Cup are necessary to understand and contextualize their limited success.

Playing in South Africa, naturally considered by Africans as playing at home, generated high expectations for African teams.  A few facts legitimized these expectations. Earlier, Cameroon and Senegal reached the quarter-finals respectively in 1990 and 2002 demonstrating that reaching the second round for an African team is a valid expectation.  African Under 17, Under 20 world championships successes, two Olympic medals, and the high representation of African players in all European major leagues also contributed to high expectations for African teams playing the World Cup, especially when played on African soil. Consequently, the low performance of African teams at the first round of the South African FIFA World Cup could effectively be considered unsatisfactory and below expectations for most African fans. The high expectations of Africans and football observers to their representatives playing in Africa were not fulfill by the relative disappointment of the World Cup first round results. Although the recent history of African football on the world stage provided arguments for high expectations, other perspectives may provide a more sober view.

As shown by figure 1 below, African countries’ presence on the world stage is relatively recent. Considering this recent history, one can state that Africa has been a very fast learner of the game at its highest level.
 
 FIFA World  Cup timeline and African representation
Figure 1: FIFA World Cup timeline and African representation

The recent performance of African footballers in major European clubs in Europe, as well as few exceptional performances of teams like Cameroon, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire on the world stage, naturally suggest or invited to expectations beyond what the first round of the World Cup delivered.  Other factors deserve to be considered, however, for a better perspective of African teams performance in South Africa and should have tempered the expectations.

Considering that 6 African teams represent only 18% of the overall number of teams, the representation of African teams at the second round appear more acceptable. From only one team in 1970 to 5 teams, the representation of African football at the World Cup has increased substantially.  In comparison to European and Latin America representation, however, African teams remain a small proportion of the World Cup. Therefore, highlighting the number of African teams would have been a more significant factor of failure if Africa had 13 teams like Europe (40% of the teams).  With 6 teams, two African teams at the round of 16 should have represented a logical number. FIFA’s ranking of 11 of the 16 teams qualified for the second round above all African teams qualified is another tempering factor. Rationally, although starting with six teams, the proportional representation of African teams and their overall ranking suggests that only Cameroon had the best chance to be present at the second round. Even though many African and football experts and observer expected a better performance from African teams, especially Cameroon and Nigeria because of the World Cup experience and the club affiliation of their players, only Ghana qualified and almost reached the semi-final. Ghana’s performance compensated for the poor performance of the highest ranked Cameroon and Nigeria. But Italy and France, not reaching the second round, reminds us that ranking and World Cup performance do not correlate for all. Despite Ghana’s relative success - high hopes and expectations for football African power houses, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire - overall only one team at the second round was conforming to historical and socio-economic reality of African football. 

The history of the unbalanced representation of Africa and Asia at the World Cup should suggest to most commentators and observers to use perspective when discussing the relative low performance of African teams. Continuously evoking the contrast between the number of African teams in relation to their performance resonates too often like “Despite having so many teams and playing at home as Africa has this World Cup, the success is limited and playing at home doesn't boost their performance".  The low performance of African teams was an undeniable fact.  But all things considered, African football is over-achieving on the world stage. As mentioned by the blog post “What do we expect from African Teams" the outcome of African teams at the World Cup in South Africa was predictable.  Africa and Asia remain numerically underrepresented at the World Cup. Hosting the competition does not alleviate the history and the economic environment of most countries.  Ghana’s performance and South Africa’s beautifully hosting of the World Cup demonstrated the extent of the potential of African people when well-prepared and organized.   But, it does not erase the socio-economic and political challenges African football confronts to exist locally and on the world stage.



 
 
 

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