Osasu Obayiuwana: World Cup worries for Africa

As many within the fraternity would remember, the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa were coined as the ‘African World Cup’, for obvious ‘feel good’ reasons – being the first (and hopefully not the last) World Cup to be hosted on the continent.

But with five of Africa’s six teams knocked out in the first round of that tournament, it was anything but a successful advertisement for the strength of its football.

Asia, supposedly behind Africa in the game’s pecking order, achieved, at the 2010 tournament, something the continent is yet to do, since its debut at the 1934 finals in Italy – having two teams, South Korea and Japan, in the World Cup’s knockout round.

And let’s not forget South Korea already had the distinction of being the first team, outside of Europe and South America, to reach the semi-finals, at the 2002 tournament they co-hosted with Japan.

The humiliating 2010 report card for African football was a damning and, at least for me, pretty depressing indictment of the continent’s failure to properly harness its wealth of playing talent and effectively compete with the rest of the world, as it ought.

When I put this stark, uncomfortable fact to Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton on 12 July 2010, the day after the World Cup final, the worrying implications of the continent’s extremely poor showing on home soil appeared lost on him.

He claimed, incredulously, that the tournament had been a very good advertisement for the continent, arguing that great strides had been made on the pitch, achievements I was clearly unable to recognise.

“We have made great progress. Remember what we have achieved at the 1990 World Cup finals and the [quarter-final] performance of Ghana in South Africa. I am confident that we have a bright future,” Hayatou insisted.

More than three years have passed since the 2010 finals, with just 10 months left to the commencement of the 2014 tournament.

And rather than look forward to Brazil with excitement, I am, from an African standpoint, full of dread.

Why? Because there is a serious possibility that it could mark a disturbing, unwanted watershed.

Over the last seven World Cups, beginning from the 1986 finals in Mexico – when Morocco’s Atlas Lions became the first African team to get past the group stages – the continent has always had a team in the knockout rounds.

Between that tournament, Cameroon’s historic quarter-final showing at Italia ’90 , Nigeria’s refreshing, exciting – even if inexperienced – debut at USA’94 and the impressive quarter-final performances of Senegal and Ghana’s Black Stars at the 2002 and 2010 finals, there were demonstrable levels of progress, indicating that African football had the capacity to deliver more.

But the 1998 and 2006 World Cups – where no team from the continent advanced beyond the ’round of sixteen’ – also served as telling reminders that the trajectory of progress was extremely fragile.

That fragility is the consequence of a lack of sustained developmental policies throughout several national federations across the continent, which negatively affects the ability to produce national teams of consistent quality at World Cups.

This “three steps forward, two steps backward” syndrome, as I call it, looks like it is finally coming home to roost, presenting the real risk that none of the continent’s five World Cup representatives, who will only emerge in November, will reach the second round in Brazil.

Since the 2010 finals, where Ghana’s Black Stars came close to reaching the semi-finals, what is certainly clear is that no African team, over the last three years, has played with the requisite degree of quality that would indicate they are capable of effectively competing at the highest level.

This lack of quality has been particularly evident at the Africa Cups of Nations that have been played since 2010.

Whilst the 2012 tournament in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon and this year’s event in South Africa certainly did not lack high drama or match excitement, those with a finicky eye would have noticed the alarming decline in the level of big-game mentality, technique and tactical nous, especially amongst the supposed big teams, like Nigeria, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon.

The performance of the Super Eagles, the reigning African champions, at the Confederations Cup, where they disappointingly lost to Uruguay and Spain – as a direct result of tactical ineptitude and not because of a lack of talent (Nigeria’s lone victory over Tahiti, in their opening match, was a non-event), is indicative of the fate that could befall the continental quintet that qualify for Brazil.

Despite the individual brilliance of several players in Africa’s national teams, often polished in the finishing school of European club football, the continent’s national teams will continually fail to grow in tandem with the talent they possess, as long as the coaching, general administrative and medical infrastructure behind national teams fail to match the professionalism and painstaking attention to the most minute of preparation detail, often exhibited by their European, South American and even Asian opponents at the World Cup.

This is no groundbreaking observation, obviously.

But what is likely to become evident at the 2014 World Cup finals is that the consistent failure of African football’s chieftains to effectively tackle obvious problems, especially over the last two decades, could result in the continent paying a very public and extremely embarrassing price on the global stage in Brazil.

Signs of an impending disaster are clearly evident.

But are those tasked with the duty of steering the ship, at the national and continental levels, seeing the unpleasant handwriting on the wall, that make for distressing reading? That is the $64,000 question.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1558477987labto1558477987ofdlr1558477987owedi1558477987sni@a1558477987nawui1558477987yabo.1558477987usaso1558477987

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.