Many of the common prejudices about African football still poke through in the modern game. This World Cup acts as a handy abstract of the problems which have often threatened to eclipse the continent’s on-field exploits.
Cameroon’s feeble campaign was overshadowed by demands over bonuses, while Ghana’s early exit was also precluded with tales of financial wrangling, as well as player misdemeanour. Throw in another group stage failure from Ivory Coast’s golden generation and one could perhaps even be forgiven for rolling their eyes as old representations of Africa hold it back from its potential.
But amidst the turmoil, on the pitch at least, Brazil 2014 has proved to be the most successful World Cup of all time for the continent. When Algeria secured a point against Russia on Thursday, they joined Nigeria in the second round of the tournament. Until then, no more than one African nation had ever reached the knockout stage of a World Cup. Four years ago, South Africa was billed as Africa’s time to shine but only Ghana rose to the occasion. After a short delay, that time is now here.
Central to the success has probably been the reshuffling of the Africa Cup of Nations, which traditionally took place six months before the beginning of a World Cup. With the close proximity of two competitions, it was asserted by experts that players were finding it difficult to complete two high-intensity tournaments in such a short space of time. With the ACN now taking place in odd-numbered years, it’s opened the door for Coaches to be fully-focused on preparing for football’s showpiece event.
Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria side were quietly confident about reaching this stage. Drawn in a tricky group, the narrow victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina was vital in seeing them qualify as runners-up of Group F. Meanwhile, Algeria’s group was genuinely wide open, with Russia and South Korea also optimistic about their chances of qualifying behind Belgium. Ultimately, a fantastic team ethic and entrenched self-belief hauled the Fennec Foxes into unchartered territory.
Now the duo must face off with two of the newly-installed bookies’ favourites. Both France and Germany have kicked off their campaigns with great intensity, making anything other than a meeting between the two European states in the quarter-finals seem farfetched.
But Nigeria and Algeria can draw hope from Africa’s recent World Cup past. Nobody expected Senegal to do anything other than fold in the Far East in 2002, but it took a golden goal to deny them an improbable semi-final spot. Eight years later, only Luis Suarez’s palm prevented Ghana from gate crashing the last four party.
Certainly, neither the Super Eagles nor Vahid Halihodzic’s men have the personnel that shone in those two World Cups. But Didier Deschamps and Joachim Low will be under no allusions about the dangers that both teams possess: Nigeria twice pegged back Argentina thanks to an Ahmed Musa double, while Algeria were within 20 minutes of stunning a highly-fancied Belgium. A surprise is certainly not off the cards.
But, as Algeria celebrated their passage to the knockout stages on Thursday, Nigeria were refusing to train due to a disagreement over bonuses. The matter was eventually settled but it’s another blotch on Africa’s image. On Monday, both nations have the opportunity to put riches to one side and show off the more affable face of African football.