With Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the FIFA World Cup™ by the end of the last century having proved wide off the mark, Africans are desperate for the continent' first finals to witness a meaningful achievement. Many see a semi-final place for one of the African contenders at South Africa 2010 as an absolute must, especially with the backing of a football-mad people that are sure to support their home side first and any other African nation second.
Considering that Cameroon at Italy 1990 and Senegal at Korea/Japan 2002 are the only African sides to reach the quarter-finals of the world’s showpiece football event and that no FIFA World Cup has ever had more than one African side in the knockout rounds, it seems a tall order. And while there is no doubt that the continent has continued to produce some of the world’s best players, the inconsistency of its national teams has left many scratching their heads.
However, typical of Africa, optimism somehow triumphs in the face of any odds, and many legendary figures, past and present, have gone on the record predicting success. For current players, the idea of lifting the spirits of the continent’s people to the level of ecstasy is the ultimate. “My team-mates and I want to make history and want to change the way the world sees African football. I hope that we'll be the team that is going to go to the Final and win the competition,” said injury-worry Didier Drogba, who may miss the tournament with a broken arm, but who captains what many consider to be the most talent-laden side on the continent.
Ghana legend Abedi Pele has also been in bullish form, hinting that there is a good chance for ultimate glory in the Final on 11 July. He is, however, also careful to insist that, at such a difficult event, in which the draw was not particularly kind to the African hopefuls, performance may matter more ultimately than advancement.
“It’s going to be a very tough tournament for the African teams,” Pele, who has two sons - Andre and Rahim Ayew - on the current Ghana team, admitted to FIFA.com. “They have tough groups and it’s not going to be easy for them to get out. There is a theory that says this is the best time for an African team to win the tournament – maybe that is true. We will have to wait and see, but whatever happens, I think our teams will do us proud.”
Pele no doubt has in his mind the success of his home country at the end of last year in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, when they broke through to become the first African winner of the competition. Many of those impressive youngsters have worked their way into the Black Stars side and shown at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year in Angola.
Another team on the up are South Africa, who have not lost in 12 matches, and are hitting peak form at just the right time under veteran boss Carlos Alberto Parreira. And the hosts of the FIFA World Cup typically get a huge boost from their home crowd, which will surely be the case for Bafana Bafana. South African great Lucas Radebe sees potential for the hosts to reach the semi-finals, but he also stressed that how far the African teams advance is not the ultimate measure of success.
“This World Cup is not only about football, it’s about Africa reinventing itself," said the former Leeds defender. “Of course we want success on the field, but at the same time, we would like to see this event a success off the field. We want the world to trust Africa, we want everyone to know that we are capable of organising these events. After July 12, everyone should be proud of being an African.”
For the first time, Africa has six teams at the finals, and two of the continent’s sleeping giants will be there desperate to make an impact. This will be Cameroon’s sixth FIFA World Cup, but the Samuel Eto’o-led side have failed to make a significant impact since 1990. Nigeria are playing in their fourth finals, but they have also disappointed since reaching the second round at both USA 1994 and France 1998. However, some shaky friendly results and an injury to central midfield lynchpin John Obi Mikel has hurt the Super Eagles, while the Lions of Cameroon have also been inconsistent in their warm-up matches.
Algeria are considered the biggest outsiders of the bunch, but the Desert Foxes proved themselves wily and cool customers in qualifying and at the last CAF Africa Cup of Nations, where they finished fourth. For all of the African teams, the difficulty of the groups are such that none can be considered favourites to advance, but the potential would seem to be there for almost all of them to find form and embark on a creditable run.
“We are in a different and better position than previous tournaments, and I think we are better prepared," Kalusha Bwalya said recently. “We have the confidence and experience, and I believe our teams now believe they can achieve success at this level."