World Cup 2018: So many surprises but a glimmer of hope for Africa

Surprised?  Yes, I’m sure you are and so do I. You did not for a moment envisage that the self-acclaimed big teams are nowhere to be found in the quarterfinals of the World Cup despite all the hype. Indeed, many are still wondering, what might have caused the early exit of the all-conquering Spanish team, the ambitious Portuguese and the scintillating Argentines led by the impeccable, Lionel Messi.

The exhilaration surrounding the tournament before its commencement was obviously to see who might prevail the most among the two best players in the world at the moment although many were also watching with keen interest which country could collectively win the competition irrespective of the superstars they are endowed with because of the performance of the Germans in the FIFA Confederations Cup a year ago.

 

Coming to terms with the realities of the World Cup is what football fans still have to grapple with considering the outcome of the matches so far in the competition.

 

From the moment Iceland held Argentina to 1-1 scoreline up until the moment South Korea stunned the Germans in the final match after they had been intimidated by the Mexicans, many forecasters and analysts have had to eat back their words because the predictions were just not forthright.

Arguments have arisen on whether exiting from the group stages of the competition after winning it might just be another demon that will haunt winners of the World Cup but that will be another topic we would deal with in subsequent write-ups but it sure adds to the excitement and the surprises the World Cup offers at any given tournament since the 2002 when South Korea defied all odds to beat Spain in the quarterfinals to reach the semis.

 

Teams that hitherto would have qualified with ease at this stage of the competition have in this tournament struggled to find convincing results over their opponents.  With all the talents that were available to Belgium compared to the Japanese team, they still had to come from behind to beat Japan who were in a pole position to qualify.  Brazil, Portugal, Germany and Argentina also suffered similar obstacles before finding their way to join the final sixteen teams.

Host country, Russia, are still carrying the hopes of the nation with their remarkable performances and surprise results though many did not envision such a feat.  And although eliminated, the likes of Iran, Japan and Iceland have sent a clear and definite message that football has indeed transcended its boundaries.  It would be prudent at this moment not to single out any favourite team going into matches taken into account the results we have recorded so far.

But why is Africa not sharing in such surprise stories at the World Cup.  Why is the African story always the same after every single tournament?  Are African countries cursed they still have to wait till their ‘appointed time?’  But while we wait for Africa’s appointed time, I think there are still some positives we could pick from their participation in this tournament.

 

The World Cup campaigns of Africa’s five sides in Russia were brief and, largely, underwhelming, with the continent’s quintet all falling at the first hurdle.  Largely, it’s been a disappointing tournament, with Nigeria and Senegal’s hopes of progression quashed at the death, while the North African trio were all eliminated after just two games.  However, it’s not been a completely negative experience for the continent’s sides.  Here’s one major positive each side can take from their tournament showing.

 

 

Tunisia

The Carthage Eagles were ravaged against Belgium, but they didn’t do too badly at all in their opener against England, where they were only denied at the death. It was a narrow miss that ought to give Nabil Maaloul’s side some confidence. Taking three points from their three group games represents par for the North Africans, who weren’t expected to topple the European sides, and they at least ended their 40-year wait for a World Cup win by coming from behind to defeat Panama in their final match. Limited foe, perhaps, but it’s certainly a wait off the Eagles’ backs!

 

Nigeria

Oghenekaro Etebo’s performances in Russia demonstrated that the Super Eagles have a genuinely class act in their midst. Despite conceding an own goal in the defeat by Croatia, Etebo was a consistently excellent presence or Nigeria, impressing with his passing, his tackling and his driving runs through the heart of the park. With John Obi Mikel now 31, and with his best days behind him, Nigeria can be confident that, in Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi, their midfield is set up for a decade to come.

 

Egypt

There aren’t many positives for the Pharaohs to take from their miserable World Cup campaign as Mohamed Salah’s injury and Hector Cuper’s negative tactics conspired to see them finish bottom of the tournament’s easiest group. Perhaps the only positive is that things can only get better over the coming year. Cuper, and his overt conservatism, have gone, and after supporter backlash, the EFA will surely turn to a coach who can promote a more attractive style. Salah, as long as he doesn’t retire from the international game, could recover to fire Egypt to the African title next year.

 

Morocco

In contrast to the Pharaohs, there are many positives for the Atlas Lions to take from their showing in Russia, even if they were out after two games and fell to Iran in their opener. As Herve Renard pointed out vehemently, there was an element of injustice behind their defeat by Portugal, as the referee opted not to consult VAR on several instances. Ultimately, Morocco go home but after controversially being denied four points against Portugal and Spain, and after playing some of the most attractive, organised, and intense football of the competition.

 

Senegal

Considering how Senegal started the campaign, and the talent available, their failure to progress could arguably be the most disappointing of the quintet.  At least Aliou Cisee now has an idea of what works and the value of playing to his team’s strengths, even if their values deserted them against both Japan and Colombia. Defensively, they have the best centre-back pairing in Africa, Youssouf Sabaly and Moussa Wague established themselves as international players in Russia, while youngsters Ismaila Sarr and Keita Balde represent an excellent supporting cast for Sadio Mane.

 

Today Sports
…with Gottlieb Baako (gottlieb.baako@todaygh.com)

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