I find it highly weird not seeing an African team in the knockout stages. Even though they don’t make much noise during that phase of the tournament, this is the first time in 36 years that an African team failed to qualify for the knockout phase. So again, I find this anomaly weird. Though, it really came down to a matter of splitting the finest of hairs to keep Senegal out of the knockout stages, as Japan and Poland tacitly colluded to see out th
e remainder of Poland’s 1-0 win. The Japanese accumulating two fewer yellow cards was the subtle dagger to Africa’s only possible representation in the knockout phases.
You make your own luck in a tournament like the World Cup. Find that ever-illusive current of luck and ride the wave until it eventually reaches its shores, and for the African representatives, said wave passed them by. Instead, a talented-filled Moroccan side fell on the wrong side of luck, losing their opening game to Iran by conceding a stoppage-time own-goal. They were later highly unfortunate not to win games against both Portugal and Spain, but the damage from their opening game was a damage they could not control. Elsewhere, Tunisia and Egypt contracted the injury curse before the tournament started, and Nigeria’s young crop of talent were robbed in the dying embers of the game against Messi’s Argentina.
Africa has an abundance of talent, Senegal produced exciting players such as Ismaila Sarr, Moussa Wagué, without having to mention Sadio Mané and Idrissa Gueye. Nigeria fielded young stars in Oghenekaro Etbeo, and the youngest goalkeeper at the World Cup, Francis Uzoho – who has surely increased his stock off of his impressive tournament. Morocco had experienced players who apply their trade across the main leagues in Europe, and France... well, they're are now in the semi-finals off the backs of some African descendants.
However, the infrastructure that these players are born from is as sturdy as a three-legged chair; it has to be better. Management needs to be better. Senegal was led by Alilou Cisse – a former player that helped the nation reach the quarter-finals back in 2002 World Cup – who is of the ilk of what it means to be Senegalese. The same was said for the former Nigeria coach, the late Stephen Keshi, who helped secure an African Cup of Nations title. Though, often enough African teams tend to favour the foreign manager who uses the nation as a stepping stone for greener pastures.
But smaller, minute details have to be changed too. An immovable defence has been a recipe of success at this tournament, and perhaps this is something that African teams must adapt to fix a plaguing issue of their game. It's no real shock that African teams have lacked the discipline and cohesiveness during set-plays (look at Colombia's winning goal against Senegal), and in a World Cup that has seen many goals from set-plays go in, it’s a huge advantage ready to be seized upon. But that can only be conquered once the limited resources and lack of specialised coaching have been combated.
One of the greatest commodities that Africa loses on a sporting level is their talent. The talent that immigrates to Europe - for a better standard of living and to seize upon wealthier opportunities - in turn enriching Europe and stifling Africa's development. Don’t get me wrong, talent still exists in African leagues, but the lack of infrastructure makes for a tougher playing field to keep them away from the allure of the well-establishment leagues in Europe. Money talks at the end of the day. Though, it’s not all doom and gloom. Both Senegal and Morocco – who have shown most promise out of the five qualified African teams at this World Cup are footballing nations that benefit from having better-coordinated youth systems. For instance, Senegal’s youth scheme is not run through the governments or associations that are prone to falling under corruption; instead private initiative groups oversee the scheme.
The French national team have recently cemented their names into the semi-finals after wins over South American nations; Argentina in the second round and Uruguay in the quarter-finals. A large makeup of Didier Deschamps’ squad is of African descent. Many African nations have lost prized talents to European nations, however, Morocco have managed to keep hold of their stars from choosing to play for other nations despite learning their footballing education away from their homeland. So it is possible to keep the flock of birds from straying from the nest.
Let's face it, this World Cup in Russia has been a poor showing for African teams, if we are to rate them with the same level of scrutiny as the big nations that is. However, there was a very compelling sample size to feel encouragement for the next World Cup in Qatar, 2022. There are even talks of the competition being expanded as well.
Pele’s premonition of an African nation winning a World Cup may have taken another hit, but it's not a hit worthy of a knockout. More attention needs to be placed on the smaller details if African nations are to make noise in the tournament like their rapturous fans make in the stands.