The countdown is over. It is just a few hours to go before the first match ball is kicked in the 2022 FIFA World Cup between hosts Qatar and Ecuador on Sunday. The World Cup is the biggest tournament any football player aspires to participate in. For this competition, five countries will represent and carry the hopes of the entire African continent.
African teams have not generally excelled at this tournament. However, some of them have been near, yet still very far from reaching the pinnacle of the tournament, talkless of winning this prestigious competition. Coincidentally, the three countries that have represented the continent best enough – Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana – qualified for the 2022 edition. Tunisia and Morroco join the trio in Qatar.
The million-dollar question is: Can any African team go two steps further than their previously eclipsed round and bring the elusive FIFA World Cup trophy to the continent as champions of the Mundial?
African teams at Qatar 2022
First, a detailed look at the five African teams – in alphabetical order – is presented below.
Cameroon qualified top of Group D, ahead of Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Malawi. The crucial 1-0 win against the Ivorians in the last game of the group qualifiers enabled the Indomitable Lions to qualify for the third round and final qualifying round, in which they were drawn against Algeria in a two-legged affair.
Algeria won the first leg 1-0 in Cameroon, but the Lions roared back and won the second leg 2-1 in extra time, qualifying for the Mundial on the away goals rule.
Coach Rigobert Song, himself a legendary ex-player of the team, called up 26 players for the battle in Qatar. He can rely on captain Vincent Aboubakar, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko Ekambi upfront, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa as the midfield marshall and Andre Onana as the last man standing in between the sticks. Interestingly, the majority of the aforementioned players are going to the World Cup in excellent form.
Surprisingly missing from the squad, however, is the experienced Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui.
Cameroon is in Group G alongside Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland.
Ghana barely finished top of Group G in the second qualifying round, controversially defeating South Africa 1-0 on the final day of the qualifier. Both Ghana and South Africa finished with 13 points, but the former progressed to the final qualifying round, thanks to its superior goals scored.
The Black Stars faced Nigeria, their eternal West African rivals, in the final qualifying round. It ended 0-0 in Kumasi in the first leg, but a 1-1 result in Abuja catapulted Ghana to the World Cup based on the away goals rule.
Otto Addo, a legendary ex-player of the team, was appointed ahead of Ghana’s clash against Nigeria to reorganise the team and ensure its qualification for the World Cup. Addo, who is also the Assistant Manager of Borrusia Dortmund, made some brave decisions for the assemblage of his final 26-man squad for the tournament. Asides from the regulars like captain Andre Ayew, Thomas Partey, Daniel Amartey, Jordan Ayew and Baba Abdul Rahman, the coach called up players who recently switched alliance to Ghana such as Inaki Williams, Tariq Lamptey, as well as Mohammed Kudus, who was viewed as an “enfant terrible” for reportedly refusing to honour the national team call-up.
Also included are Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, Alexander Djiku and Daniel Kofi Kyereh, who were the breakout stars for the Black Stars in their disappointing AFCON 2021 showing. Not called up, however, are Joe Wollacott, Richard Ofori, Iddrissu Baba, John Paintsil, Jeffrey Schlupp, Mubarak Wakaso and Felix Afena-Gyan.
Group H is where Ghana will battle Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final fixture, which the South Americans bitterly and controversially won.
Morocco virtually eased to qualification for the 2022 World Cup. The Atlas Lions finished top of Group I with the maximum 18 points on offer, winning all their six games against Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.
The Moroccans were subsequently pitted against the Democratic Republic of Congo in the final qualifying round. The first leg ended 1-1 in Kinshasa, but the Atlas Lions walloped the Leopards 4-1 in Casablanca to seal their qualification to Qatar.
Despite qualifying the team for the Mundial, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation sacked coach Vahid Halilhodžić, who had been entangled in a face-off with star winger, Hakim Ziyech, in August 2022. The federation subsequently appointed Walid Regragui as the team’s coach.
Regragui immediately recalled Ziyech into the team and the 26-man squad for the tournament. He also recalled Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has not featured for the national team since 2019. Also included in the team are the regulars: goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, star defender Achraf Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat and forwards Youssef En-Nesyri and Sofiane Boufal.
However, Amine Harit is expected to miss the Mundial after he picked up a knee injury while playing for his club, Olympique de Marseille.
The Atlas Lions will play in Group F alongside Croatia, Canada and Belgium.
Senegal had a pretty easy run in Group H, racking up five wins, a draw and a cumulative 16 out of 18 points. The teams that fell by the wayside are Togo, Namibia and Congo.
Shortly before the final qualifying round was played, Senegal emerged as African champions after defeating Egypt via penalties in the African Cup of Nations. The football gods smiled on the continent as the drama between both teams continued after they were pitted to face each other in the final qualifier.
Egypt won the first leg 1-0 in Cairo, but the Terranga Lions responded by winning the reverse fixture in Dakar 1-0. The game subsequently went into extra time and penalties, as it had happened two months earlier. Senegal, once again, triumphed over Egypt via penalties and got the ticket to Qatar.
Coach Aliou Cisse, who was the captain of the killer Senegalese team that shocked the world at the 2002 edition of the Mundial, maintained the core of the squad that delivered the AFCON trophy and World Cup qualification for him. He should be heading into the tournament as the Terranga Lions’ star player, but Sadio Mane, the current African Footballer of the Year, has withdrawn from the squad after he sustained an injury while on duty with his club side, Bayern Munich.
Although the talisman will not be at the tournament, Cisse can call on the likes of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, captain and defensive marshall Kalidou Koulibaly, midfield marshall Idrissa Gueye and striker Ismaila Sarr.
Alongside Mane, Bouna Sarr and Saliou Ciss, both full-backs who played starring roles in the triumph of the Teranga Lions at the Africa Cup of Nations, will be absent in Qatar.
Senegal are drawn in Group A alongside Netherlands, Ecuador and hosts Qatar.
Tunisia had to navigate a tough Group B and needed a last-day win against Zambia in the second qualifying round to advance to the third and final qualifying round. Other teams in the group were Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania.
The final qualifying round was a repeat of the AFCON 2021 group-stage encounter between Tunisia and Mali, which ended controversially in favour of the latter following the unimpressive performance of referee Janny Sikazwe, who was later said to have suffered “heatstroke and severe dehydration”.
There was, however, no repeat of the controversy as Tunisia surprisingly won the first leg 1-0 in Bamako and held out for a goalless draw in the reverse fixture in Tunis, a result which guaranteed the Cathrage Eagles’ participation at the World Cup.
Coach Jalel Kadri has listed in his 26-man squad several players who are equipped with great experience, including top goal scorer Wahbi Khazri and captain Youssef Msakni. The coach has also called on youth with potential such as Hannibal Mejbri, the Manchester United midfielder currently on loan at Birmingham City, to make their mark on the team.
Tunisia are listed in a competitive Group D alongside France, the defending champions; Australia and Denmark.
Can an African team win Qatar 2022 World Cup?
Well, it is back to the initial question asked in the prologue. Can an African team brave the odds and finally break the glass ceiling in Qatar?
The great Pele, the legendary Brazilian player, had predicted in the 1970s that an African country would win the Mundial before the year 2000. However, 22 years and five world cups after the forecast date, which includes the first World Cup to be staged in Africa in 2010, the prophecy or prediction is yet to materialise. African teams have tried to progress but ultimately fallen short. The quarter-final berth attained by Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) remains the best performance posted by teams from the continent.
ALSO READ: Top 11 biggest upsets in World Cup history
Unfortunately, it does not look like African teams will break the duck at Qatar 2022. Numerous reasons abound as to why it will remain a stalemate for African teams at the Mundial.
The range of the tactical awareness of the coaches of the five African teams has been called into question. For the first time in the history of the tournament, the head coaches of all the teams are indigenous coaches. While this feat is hugely significant, football largely runs on logic, not emotions. The experience of the coaches, their knowledge of modern coaching tactics and their ability to make in-game changes and influence games positively will be key.
Coaching goes beyond setting formations, it also entails what instructions the coaches give the players generally and individually: the style of play of their team and how they impress it on the opposition (playing a low block or high press game/retaining possession or defending deep), the method of passing (moving the ball centrally, through the wings, short diagonal passes or “route one” balls and the marking system (particularly which area to press aggressively and which area to sit deep) among others. More importantly, the ability of the coaches to decipher and immediately counter moves of opposition coaches during gameplay is so crucial during tournaments.
Only Cisse, Senegal’s coach, has, among the African coaches, being able to demonstrate that he understands and can implement the aforementioned concepts. This is partly due to the long period he has spent with the team, which has, therefore, enabled him to build the team in his mould and understanding of the game. The coaches of Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia have only been on the job for months and have not had proper and extensive preparations with their players ahead of the Mundial. The lack of familiarity between coaches and their squads does not bode well for tournaments.
Also, the lack of preparation for teams heading to the World Cup due to the switch in the schedule of the competition for this year (from June-July to November-December) means that African coaches who have not bonded with their teams properly may find it difficult to build a cohesion of rolling machines on the pitch of play. There will be glaring evidence of a lack of understanding and disfigured system of play by the players. On the other hand, the majority of European and South American teams have had their managers in their positions for a while, so coherence will not be much of a problem
And speaking of European football, with the majority of African footballers now foreign-based, with over an estimated 80 per cent of them plying their trade in Europe, African coaches are, therefore, sadly forced to plan their game based on the European system and flair. The greatest deficiency of this plan is that African teams hardly possess the surprise element that will fluster the Europeans and South America. Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana utilised the combination of power (physicality) and trick (skills) to make their mark known at the 1990, 2002 and 2010 tournaments. But today, there is a heavy and largely sole focus on technique for players abroad, a situation which does not favour African players and coaches.
Another potential issue that may likely hinder African teams’ chances is the quality of players. Despite the majority of the players of the five African teams playing and being exposed to European football, the technical quality of some of these players barely scratches the surface. While the five teams do have some quality astute players, the majority of their supporting cast is average, at best. The average level of some of these players impacts their ability to make quick, influential and measured decisions on the field of play such as knowing when to intensify or reduce the pace of the game, send their colleague a pass or cross or when to kick the ball out of play.
The biggest elephant in the room remains the issue of wage payment/remuneration. Remember the debacle at the 2018 World Cup when the Black Stars of Ghana refused to train until a plane carrying hard currency landed in Russia and the money was brought into the dressing room on a matchday? Such an issue, which should ordinarily be a trivial one to resolve, distorts the preparation of African teams when not settled, as the players go on strike and refuse to train; thereby putting the coaches in limbo.
The heads of the FAs of the five qualified teams, therefore, have to ensure that all issues regarding bonuses and allowances are settled before the tournament commences.
Senegal represents Africa’s best hope of progressing to the latter stages of the World Cup, especially when their relatively favourable group is considered. But with Mane out of the competition, some people are expectedly worried and have downgraded the chances of the Terranga Lions. A good number of African football fans, journalists and pundits have also bookmarked Cameroon and Morocco as the other teams from the continent to do well, although they will have to progress from what seems to be tough groups.
But can an African team win the World Cup? Realistically, this year’s edition is a long shot for any of the five teams. What is the highest stage of the tournament that an African team can reach? Probably romancing the quarter-finals again.