On 8 June 1990, the football world suddenly took African football seriously when nine-man Cameroon, thanks to a Francois Oman Biyick header, beat defending champions Argentina and Diego Maradona 1-0 in the opening game of the World Cup finals. Cameroon went on to reach the quarter finals, the first African nation to do so, where the team were unlucky to be on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline against England.
Almost twenty years on and African players are amongst the biggest names in the game, plying their trade in the world’s best leagues. Next year the continent hosts its first World Cup, all of which represents significant progress for football and Africa, but could it be the year an African nation lifts football’s most prestigious prize?
Cameroon has again qualified for the tournament and, with dependable Carlos Kemeni in goal and prolific marksman Samuel Eto’o upfront, the Indomitable Lions will be one of those heading to South Africa with strong ambitions. Cameroon, along with Ivory Coast and to a lesser extent Ghana, both of whom cruised through their qualifiers, will be more than capable of holding their own against the best in the world.
Ivory Coast has an outstanding team and with the deadly Didier Drogba leading in attack you feel they will always have a chance of scoring. The Ghanaians also have a mean defence, but scoring goals could be their undoing in South Africa. However, at this year’s World Youth Cup in Egypt, Ghana might have unearthed a goal-scoring gem in the form of Dominic Adiyiah. Adiyiah, who was voted player of the tournament, scored eight goals in the competition and one of the vital winning penalties in the final shootout against Brazil.
Nigeria only just qualified for South Africa and it has to be said that this team is not as exciting as the one led by Jay-Jay Okocha that thrilled the world during the nineties. Yet, this team has a resilient streak and if they can progress through the group stage there will be few teams wanting to meet them in the second round. Algeria will be taking part in their first World Cup for 24 years and for many will be something an unknown quantity. My feeling is Algeria could cause an upset or two, and the electrifying Karim Ziani is the player most likely to catch the eye and make things happen on the pitch.
The host nation will be hoping that the return of Carlos Alberto Parreira as manager will again improve results. The Brazilian legend left the South African post to look after his sick wife, but now she’s better he’s back in the hot seat and looking to turn a team around that lost its way under Joel Santana. Bafana Bafana fans will be pleased if the team plays like it did at this year’s Confederations Cup, where they unexpectedly reached the semi-final and lost to a late Brazil goal. They will, though, do well to make it out of their group.
Pele famously wrongly predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the last century. I’m not going to say an African team will definitely win the World Cup in South Africa, but it is testament to how far African football has developed that few of us would be overly surprised to see an African triumph.