Johannesburg – Pardon Patrice Motsepe for being over-optimistic. After all, such is his role in African football the South African mining magnate had to speak as he did sometime last year.
“An African team must win the World Cup in the near future,” Motsepe said shortly after assuming the role of president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
The near future, though, is definitely not going to be next month – at least not if Africa’s World Cup history is anything to go by.
The 2022 Fifa World Cup kicks off in Qatar tomorrow with Africa set to be represented by five countries at the month-long 32-nation spectacle.
Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal will be carrying the continental flag in the Middle East, with Africa hopeful one of these could achieve a milestone and bring football’s ultimate prize back home.
It is a hope that was previously expressed by the sport’s foremost player, Pele of Brazil, more than three decades ago.
The reality, though, is that African countries are just not good enough at the World Cup finals to warrant being considered potential winners.
And even though the continent has produced individual superstars who matched and even surpassed the world’s best at club level over the years, Africa’s national teams somehow find it difficult to replicate the individuals’ showing as a collective.
This much is evidenced by the fact that while he has won the World Footballer of the Year award as a player turning out for the great AC Milan of the ’90s, Liberian legend George Weah has never won anything with his country’s Lone Stars. For Pete’s sake, Weah never got close to qualifying for the World Cup.
For years, the refrain “Africa deserves more spots at the World Cup finals” because the continent is “one of the biggest Fifa confederations” has rung non-stop. The five we currently have, many feel, is very little. With the next tournament in 2026 expanded from 32 finalists to 48, Africa will have more representation – nine and a potential 10th via playoffs.
Still, Fifa’s second-biggest confederation has not pushed its weight well enough at the spectacle to warrant being seen as serious contenders.
While Senegal national team captain Kalidou Koulibaly has said it’s about time Africa stopped “believing that getting past the first round is a great achievement” because “winning the World Cup is a great achievement”, history suggests the continent will have to wait a little longer for that feat to materialise.
On the strength, some will argue weakness, of their performance at the World Cup finals, Africa is actually not worthy of more representation.
And the five countries that will be representing us in Qatar will struggle to find motivation from historical showings.
Yes, the trio of Senegal, Cameroon and Ghana have previously reached the quarter-finals and can thus believe they have what it takes to challenge.
But when you look at the numbers from the previous tournaments and you assess the groups these countries find themselves in, there’s little to inspire confidence in any of them making it into the knockout stage.
For starters, all five countries are going to take on European opposition, some of them two of those, in the group phase. Now, here’s Africa’s record against European opponents at World Cup finals since Egypt’s debut in 1934 – played 88, won 18, drew 23, lost 47.
It is a pathetic record, with a good number of the 18 victories being merely academic as the results failed to help the winning countries advance. There was Algeria’s victory over West Germany in 1982, the first such, but it counted for nothing as the Desert Foxes still got knocked out in the first round.
Bafana Bafana’s two wins at the finals were against European opposition – Slovenia and France in 2002 and 2010, respectively. But on both occasions we did not progress past the group stage.
It was the same story in 2006 when the Ivory Coast beat Serbia and Montenegro 3-2 in their final group match having lost their first two matches and thus won just to save face as they still exited the tournament.
Nigeria were victorious against Iceland in their second group match in 2018 but had lost to Croatia and were then beaten by Argentina to exit the tournament at the first phase.
Perhaps more worrying for Africa should be the kind of European opposition they will be up against and the history those UEFA members have against CAF opposition.
Senegal are arguably Africa’s strongest representative although the unavailability, due to injury, of the talismanic Sadio Mane severely undermines that standing now. The Lions of Teranga have the Netherlands in their group and Aliou Cisse and his men will be looking to become the first African country to beat the Dutch at the World Cup finals.
In four contests with African countries, the Netherlands have never lost – winning three of those and drawing once.
While Tunisia can be encouraged by the fact France have twice lost to African opposition in the group stages and that Denmark have twice been held to a draw, the Carthage Eagles are generally poor at the finals having yet to progress out of the group stages in five appearances.
Morocco will be hard-pressed to produce stellar performances against Croatia and Belgium but Cameroon should fancy their chances of squeezing past Switzerland and Serbia – the latter having previously been beaten by the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The Swiss have, however, won their only clash with African opposition – they beat Togo in 2006.
The Black Stars have Portugal to contend with from Europe, a tricky clash that will require Andre Ayew and Co to be at their best.
If UEFA opposition and history against such teams suggests a tough time for African teams in Qatar, the record against South American opposition, of which our representatives will face three, does not inspire confidence either.
African countries have played 28 times against CONMEBOL members and lost a massive 20 of those with a mere three victories, which were registered by Algeria against Chile in 1982; and Cameroon against Argentina and Colombia in 1990.
Ghana will tackle Uruguay in their final group match no doubt keen to gain sweet revenge for that infamous moment from 2010 when Luis Suarez blocked a goal-bound ball with his hand. It is common knowledge now that Asamoah Gyan failed to convert the resultant penalty and that Uruguay went on to win via the shoot-out from the penalty spot. The South Americans have never lost to an African side having beaten both South Africa and Egypt, and drawn with Senegal.
The other South American opposition for the CAF representatives is Ecuador in Senegal’s group. While they might appear on the surface to be a country the Lions of Teranga should get the better of, undermine them at your own peril.
Morocco should fancy their chances against CONCACAF’S Canada. Africa and the Atlas Lions should be encouraged by the four wins from nine matches that the continent has over the teams from North and Central America over the years.
Hosts Qatar, Australia and South Korea are Asian opposition for Senegal, Tunisia and Ghana, respectively and they enjoy a better record over us given they have won six of the 17 clashes while Africa has just four victories.
The numbers paint a bleak picture for the continent whose attempts at the big prize are almost always blighted by pre-tournament infighting for bonuses or overall poor preparations.
There has not been any such ahead of Sunday’s big kick-off and the hope is no doubt all five representatives have got their ducks in a row and the players will be able to focus solely on what happens on the pitch.
Whether they will be able to lift themselves to such great heights that we will have a champion is somewhat wishful thinking. But you can bet that a quarter-final spot would put a smile on Patrice Motsepe’s face while a maiden semi-final appearance would be celebrated by the entire continent, no matter who achieves it.
If only wishes were horses though, right?