While North African teams dominated Africa’s early World Cup participation, Cameroon’s 1990 explosion was a catalyst for change in more ways than one. Six of the first eight African qualifiers for the World Cup were from North Africa but, since 1990, those stats have turned around.
Twenty two of the next thirty African qualifiers, up until and including Brazil 2014, have been from sub Saharan Africa with Cameroon and Nigeria leading the way with seven and five appearances respectively. In total, nine different sub-Saharan African teams have reached the World Cup versus four from North Africa. In a clue as to where the real power in the continent lies, six of those nine SSA countries are in West/Central Africa.
While Algeria’s 2014 qualification for the knockout stages represented only the second time that a North African side was achieving this milestone, West/Central African sides have done so seven times, led by Nigeria, the only African country to have progressed to the second round three times. Ghana is the only other African country to have done so more than once.
If you collated all the results achieved by North African countries at the World Cup from inception (using the conventional 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw), they have won only 6 games and “earned” 31 points from 41 games, an average of 0.7561 points per game. West/Central African teams, on the other hand, have won 20 matches and earned 70 points from 70 games at the World Cup, a much better average of 1.00 points per game (see attached tables). It is clear, it would seem, that West/Central African sides in particular, seriously out-perform their African brothers at the World level.
There are more detailed stats that make this point. While Cameroon’s frequent qualifications help to pad the volume stats in favour of West and Central Africa (they have played an African record 23 World Cup games), the truth is that their post-1990 World Cup record has been a litany of failure and defeat. 3 of their 4 World Cup wins came in that 1990 tournament and they’ve only beaten Saudi Arabia in 15 attempts since.
The best African performances at the World Cup are thus almost exclusively West African. Nigeria has topped its first round group twice and has the most wins at the World Cup of any African team (five) closely followed by Ghana who have four. On a points per game basis, considering only teams that have qualified more than once, Ghana are the most successful African World Cup team with 1.25 points.
Even moderate West African teams (in historical World Cup terms) like CIV, who qualified for three consecutive tournaments but never progressed beyond the group stages, have won more games at the World Cup than any North African side bar Algeria, who match them on three. So, it would appear that West Africa, in particular, hold the most promise for African outperformance at the World Cup. Assuming they can deal with the ubiquitous off the field disputes about money and (mal)administration that is.
What are the factors behind the relative success of West/Central African teams on the world stage though? A few thoughts come to mind. Methinks that the initial success of North African sides on the world stage proved, in the longer term, to be part of the reason why they have struggled relative to their rival countries to the south in the more recent past.
Proximity to Europe, both geographic and cultural, made it easier for older, more homogeneous Arab countries, to take to global football faster than the newly independent countries nearer the equator. However, over time, the North Africans have proved to be almost ersatz Europeans, in terms of their style of play and approach to the game. Unsurprisingly, it has proved difficult to beat the real thing with an imitation.
The West African teams, on the other hand, with their sometimes incongruent blend of strength and skill have often proved harder for teams from Europe, the most heavily represented continent in the World Cup, to decipher. The stats bear this out with North African teams only managing 3 wins in 30 games against European opposition at the World Cup and “earning” 21 points in those matches (0.7 pts per game).
West/Central African sides have won 11 matches in 42 attempts against Europeans, resulting in a 42 pts total that is exactly in line with their 1pt per game overall World Cup average referenced earlier. What is also noteworthy is how abysmally ALL African teams have performed against CONMEBOL countries, racking up only 3 wins and 13 pts against them in 22 games (a meagre 0.59 pts per game).
Upon further reflection, and considering that just over half those matches were against Brazil or Argentina, perhaps that stat should not be a surprise to anyone at all.
West/Central Africa also benefited from the “Europeanisation” that came with the greater number of European coaches that started heading south of the Sahara from the 1970s. These coaches brought organisation and tactical discipline though their record was decidedly mixed as their methods did not always prove to be a natural fit in many of the countries in which they ended up.
Complementing this was the increased flow of West/Central African footballers to Europe throughout the 80s and, especially, during the 90s. The Francophone countries, naturally enough given French colonial policy, led those who beat an early path to France with people like Roger Milla (him again) and, later, Joseph Antoine-Bell, showing the way. Thomas NKono joined Espanyol after his heroics in the 1982 World Cup in Spain (inspiring a young Gigi Buffon in the process).
Stephen Keshi was a sort of pied piper for Anglophone West Africans seeking a career in Europe in those early days (The bizarre story of his part in the smuggling of Odartey Lamptey out of Ghana is yet another little sidebar in the African football back story that really deserves a piece of its own!). George Weah, from Liberia, became a major star in France in the late 80s/early 90s, first with Monaco and then with the arrivistes of PSG. His crowning achievement came when he lifted the Balon D’Or in 1995, after moving to the mighty AC Milan.
By the turn of the millennium, many of the sub Saharan sides were full of Europe-based stars, some of whom, like Nwankwo Kanu, Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o played for some of the most prestigious clubs in Europe. This exodus, along with the movement of European coaches in the opposite direction, helped West/Central African national teams become better organised tactically, at least initially.
I am old enough to remember how visiting North Africans were generally regarded with dread whenever the then Green Eagles drew them in qualifiers or during AFCON. Algeria and Tunisia were particularly feared and they always seemed so much more fluid, organised and tactically sophisticated.
I can still recall one of their coaches saying how easy it was to defend against Nigerian teams because “only the player with the ball moved…everyone else basically stood and watched.” All this had changed by the 90s and this showed up in the impressive performances of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal in World Cups around the turn of the century.
Indeed, the World Cups around the turn of the millennium, specifically from 1990 up until, and including, 2002 appear to represent a high water mark for West/Central African World Cup achievement to date. There has been a noticeable downturn in overall results since then, despite Ghana’s much celebrated success in South Africa in 2010.
It is also worth attempting an explanation of why the relative “success” of West/Central African teams at the World Cup has not been replicated by the rest of sub Saharan Africa. The only three SSA teams to reach the World Cup not from West/Central Africa are South Africa, Angola and the DRC (formerly Zaire).
Of the three, only South Africa have qualified more than once and they have actually performed creditably on each occasion without ever escaping the group stages (two wins, four draws and three defeats is their overall record). However, the poor qualification and tournament record of South and East African teams probably has less to do with their technical attributes or tactical organisation and more to do with the superior physical strength and speed of the West African sides. This dynamic has played out repeatedly over the years.
Returning to the theme of the levelling off in Africa’s performance chart at the World Cup, the very physicality and athleticism that made West/Central African teams so successful in World Cups a couple of decades ago seem to have gone from being a blessing to something of a curse more recently.
By the early noughties, European coaches began to overtly prize physicality in midfield above traditional technical and playmaking skills. The same trend naturally extended to those African sides coached by Europeans i.e most of them.
Club midfields from Madrid to Manchester were suddenly populated by powerful West Africans of infinite power but limited technique and the traditional midfield playmakers beloved of African football buffs basically disappeared. In the process, West/Central African national teams began to over-emphasise this power and lost a lot of their earlier unpredictability thus making them easy for European sides in particular to “model”.
In addition, the initially positive effects of the tactical adaptation of African sides has been superseded in impact by the adverse repercussions of the globalisation of the game. The fact that the best African players had become major European club stars has meant that the element of surprise, critical to the frisson and excitement of earlier African World Cup adventures, was long gone by the time recent tournaments came around.
I would go so far as to say that the same is true of even the South Americans and the end result has been the recent European dominance of the trophy, after an eternity during which the two main continents alternated supremacy with almost metronomic consistency.
Spain became the first Europeans to win outside their continent in South Africa in 2010 and Germany quickly repeated the trick in Brazil in 2014. Assimilation may have been an exclusively French colonial policy but it has served all of Europe well in national team football.
The riches of their club football have lured the best players from around the world at ever earlier stages of their careers and, somewhat paradoxically, made them better players that are, simultaneously, of “less” use to their countries come World Cup time. Brazil’s mythical squad of 1982, for instance, had only two players (Paulo Roberto Falcao and Dirceu) plying their trade in Europe at the time of the World Cup. By 2014, the number was nineteen!
The upshot of all this is that economic power has now started to translate into national team success in a way it never used to do. Heck, even England might win an international senior trophy soon!
So, now what? What does the future hold? Does the fact that North Africa has produced more World Cup qualifiers for Russia than the rest of the continent, for the first time since 1986, indicate that the intra-African balance of power is shifting again?
Have African teams really peaked in terms of their World Cup impact and when, if ever, will an African team lift the trophy? Is the World Cup tournament itself, now a bloated 48 team caricature of its former, leaner self, in the throes of a terminal decline?
In the age of richer and richer club teams with global followings and the relentless hype that trails the UEFA Champions League, has the Mundial become something of an anti-climax?
Hard questions to answer, each and every one. Will be fun to see how the game adapts to all this change though. Maybe Africa can still provide the impetus for a footballing revolution that will upset the status quo and “save” the flagship tournament of the world’s most popular game. Starting in Russia 2018…….stranger things have happened, you know!
* In classifying DRC as not being in Central Africa for the purposes of this piece, I am minded to point out that my characterisation of Cameroon as a “Central” African country is itself very much a borderline one. They are Nigeria’s immediate neighbours to the east and I could have (perhaps, should have) used a certain “geographic license” to classify them as West African.*
Akin Dawodu (Twitter @Alimustapha)