Osasu Obayiuwana: Africa is a continent – and a country

Other than for the slightly mischievous purpose of beginning a discussion, triggered by fellow Insideworldfootball columnist Lee Wellings last week, as he looked at the chances of the African quintet going to next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil, the headline for this week’s piece would, obviously, be silly.

Lee asked me whether “it’s frustrating that people outside Africa talk about [African] nations as ‘representing the continent’, as he wondered whether “the biggest hurdle towards an African side finally winning the World Cup is that we (as in the rest of the world, minus Africa) stop talking about them collectively.

“When a truly brilliant team emerges, maybe we’ll stop looking at the whole,” he speculated.

So, do I find it frustrating that African football is always seen as a monolith at World Cup finals, where a creditable performance by one country – Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana at the 2010 finals – is seen as progress for a continent with fiftysomething nations?

Certainly, as the continent is diverse and cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as sharing one football culture, as certain countries and geographical regions sharply differ from others.

But one must be brutally honest and admit that this stereotype has been fuelled by the unacceptable fact that we have never had a situation, in the 83-year history of the World Cup finals, where more than one African country has made it beyond the group stages.

And so, the lone team that goes into the knockout rounds ends up having to bear the unwanted burden of ensuring that Africa does not exit the tournament without showing that it has the capacity to effectively compete.

In the run-up to Ghana’s quarter-final game against Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup finals, the enormous level of expectation around the continent, that an African team could, finally, reach the semi-finals, was palpable.

That certainly did no favours to the Ghanaians, who lost a game they ought to have won at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.

If the continent regularly had two teams, at least, qualifying for the knockout rounds at the same World Cup, fierce national rivalries present at the Africa Cup of Nations, might have been transplanted to the global level.

Whilst European and South/Latin American sides often play against each other at the highest level, keeping the spirit of national identity and intra-continental rivalries alive, the African reality is certainly different.

Take, for instance, the rivalry between Nigeria and Cameroon, their next-door neighbour. It’s fierce and longstanding, as Roger Milla or Stephen Keshi, veterans of some hard fought contests at past Africa Cup of Nations, would readily testify to.

But when the Indomitable Lions became the first team from the continent to reach the quarter-finals at Italia ’90, their arch-rival and indeed, other Africans, felt the victory belonged to them too, as the performance told the world that teams coming out of Africa had to be taken seriously.

The collective joy that came from Cameroon’s performance in Italy was as deep as the embarrassment felt by the continent when Zaire (now DR Congo) put up an extremely poor performance at the 1974 finals in Germany.

If both countries had come from any other continent but Africa, their performances would have been judged solely on their individual merit and not seen as being reflective of the state of an entire continent.

But the global narrative for its football, as largely defined by European chroniclers, was a direct consequence of the negative and condescending attitudes towards the continent in general.

I think it is this unfair “one-is-all” categorisation that watered the tree of solidarity, which has led to – at least where the performance of African teams at the World Cup is concerned – a shared sense of feeling when any of its representatives put up a creditable or poor performance.

As any World Cup historian can testify, there has never been a moment, at any finals, when two African teams have played against each other.

And the prospect of an all-African clash is remote, at least for the foreseeable future. Unless, of course, there is a very significant increase in the number of African teams at the World Cup finals. That’s an issue to be tackled some other day.

Now, to Lee’s second query… The biggest hurdle towards winning the sport’s ultimate prize has nothing to do with the rest of world coming to the realisation that African teams are not part of a monolith.

The biggest hurdles for several African countries (there is certainly more than one) are the persistent lack of proper planning and meticulous attention to pre-World Cup detail, as well as the implementation of a long-term roadmap, which is needed for sustained success.

But, in Nigeria’s case, the football federation can dramatically improve the chances of their team in Brazil by starting with something a lot less complex – paying the outstanding wages – seven months worth – of Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi and his assistants. That would certainly put them in the right frame of mind for the task in the Americas.

That Keshi and his team have achieved what they have this year – winning the Africa Cup of Nations and qualifying for the World Cup, whilst grappling with challenging personal financial circumstances, is a testimony to their professionalism and fortitude.

Can anyone imagine England’s Roy Hodgson, the USA’s Jurgen Klinsmann or Brazil’s Luis Felipe Scolari going without pay for a similar length of time and remaining in their posts?

Or that such a situation would even happen to them, in the first place?

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.l1634534822labto1634534822ofdlr1634534822owedi1634534822sni@a1634534822nawui1634534822yabo.1634534822usaso1634534822

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.