Lee Wellings: How strong is the African World Cup challenge?

It was a goal so beautifully created and finished it almost made you forget the cold.

Victor Moses was involved twice, and cleverly fed full-back Francis Benjamin. A great cross was finish with international class, by Shola Ameobi.

This moment of perfection came during Nigeria’s thrilling 2-2 draw with Italy in London. No doubt, the African champions can play. But are they contenders to actually win the World Cup in Brazil? And more pertinently, shouldn’t the African champions, in the year 2014, be contenders to win in Brazil?

The progress of African teams at World Cups is always interesting to observe and analyse, but it was a comment from the England coach Roy Hodgson that got me thinking before my trip to watch Nigeria and look for clues.

Hodgson – who despite his critics is a man who has been there, seen it, done it and would be too refined to ‘wear the t-shirt’ – says African nations may do better in Brazil than European. It was an intriguing comment from a manager of a supposedly strong European nation, but got buried beneath his assessment of his own team’s squad.

So is he on to something – can African nations shine in South America next year? The same five nations have qualified that made the finals in 2010 to join hosts South Africa. And while you feel desperately sorry for Burkina Faso, edged out by Algeria, maybe they can benefit from that experience in Brazil the way a new qualifier wouldn’t be able to.

Now the 32-team line-up for the finals is clear we can step-up our analysis of their prospects. The draw in December will make the picture clearer still. But for now I’ve watched the African play-offs with interest.

Nigeria fell behind in their first leg in Ethiopia yet I’m not sure I expected them to be eliminated at any stage, even when trailing. They deserve their position at the top of African football at the moment without ever really convincing they can topple the biggest nations on the biggest stage. A good team, not a great one.

But the fact I’m not tipping them to go all the way is largely down to the South American opposition. I’m sticking by Argentina as my gut feeling for glory, with Brazil and Uruguay also being there in the final week. An easy prediction – South Americans have been waiting a long time to dazzle on their own continent and I expect them to have too much – perhaps even for the incredible Spanish team seeking an unprecedented fourth straight tournament victory.

We also need to look at the limitations of the Nigerian squad. A lot of talent, but it contains players – and I include Ameobi in this – who simply wouldn’t get into a lot of top European international sides. How far down the pecking order would Ameobi be for Italy, for example?

The flipside is that coach Stephen Keshi really seems to know what he is doing, and has harnessed a spirit to go with the talent. When they trailed against Italy 1-0 half hour into the game, the Italians were playing superbly. But suddenly Nigeria hit them hard, with pace and verve, and turned the game around. You didn’t see it coming. And in Brazil they could suddenly turn it on like this.

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli said Nigeria were chosen as opponents for the physical challenge they possess. While I understand that thinking, skill and commitment were as important as the physical side in an evenly matched 90 minutes in Fulham.

2002 and 2010 were huge disappointments for a proud football nation. But Keshi assured me his problems with pay are being resolved and he will lead the team next summer.

“Can you win it?” I asked. “Why not?!” he said.

Keshi’s reign has been accompanied by controversy. This year the Football Association of Malawi reported him to FIFA for racism over comments about their Belgian coach Tom Sainfiet. Yet behind the problems and controversy he has been a crucial factor in Nigeria’s successful 2013.

Also emphatically through to Brazil are Ghana. The manner of their destruction of Egypt – a powerhouse of African football traditionally of course – suggests they could be the main contenders from the continent. This may be so, but you have to worry for them. To be that close, agonisingly close to the semi-finals, and to be robbed like that, by the hand of Suarez. Can they really repeat such a surge outside of Africa? It will be intriguing to see.

Cameroon, who ousted Tunisia to qualify from the play-offs, are another nation whose best chance of reaching the last four, or even winning the thing, may have gone. I still think back to 1990 when they could, maybe should, have beaten England in the quarter-finals. It would be helpful if Samuel Eto’o could find harmony in his international boots and peak in Brazil but would you bet on them to beat Uruguay or Argentina in a knockout match, or Germany?

The Ivory Coast are the true wildcard. Worth considering as the team that could make the semi-finals if everything comes together. No-one could doubt the talent is there. There aren’t many better players in the Premier League than Yaya Toure. Formerly Didier Drogba. But they have looked dangerous and vibrant going into international tournaments in the last decade and haven’t yet delivered. And are they really as good now as they were when Drogba was at his peak? Senegal could easily have knocked them out in a match that actually disappointed in quality. The defending will simply have to be better at the World Cup.

Finally Algeria. They are difficult to beat, and finding a way past Burkina Faso under huge pressure was quite an achievement. What is their ambition though – are they really able to make a big mark? I’ll never forget their 1982 win against West Germany. ‘Madjer, Belloumi…how about that!’ They shocked the world with that victory 30 years ago, before being robbed of the chance to go further by collusion between West Germany and Austria.

Their performances in Espana ’82 actually made a huge impact on world football as the conspiracy to eliminate them led to a change in FIFA rules – this is why final group matches are played simultaneously. Wouldn’t it be great to see them make an impact again with a positive approach.

For more expertise about who can make the biggest impact from Africa I bow to my fellow Insideworldfootball columnist Osasu Obayiuwana. But I’m interested to ask Osasu if it’s frustrating that people outside Africa, like myself, talk about nations as ‘representing the continent’, ‘trying to take African football forward’. Perhaps the biggest hurdle towards an African side finally winning the World Cup is that we stop talking about them collectively. When a truly brilliant team emerges, maybe we’ll stop looking at the whole. No-one goes on about Spain being from Europe do they? They are just, well, Spain!

At Craven Cottage, fighting off the effects of frostbite from the wind that whips in off the Thames, I was also looking for clues about Italy’s chances in Brazil.

There were no surprises here. Their teamsheet didn’t inspire, but these guys can play. And they deliver in the big tournaments. They are, unlike England, the real deal. In Balotelli they have an extraordinary talent, overshadowed by his off the field personality. And in Pirlo they have a gift from above. Let us make the most of every minute of what remains of this magician’s career. Contenders in Brazil, yes. Winners…no, South America holds the aces.

And so it could be tough for most European and African nations in Brazil.

It seems strange that a World Cup was played during my lifetime, in 1974, with one African nation only. Zaire. Their contribution is still regarded as colourful and naive, perhaps patronisingly. Mr Blatter says he wants more African teams in the World Cup. He may say something different tomorrow.

More African teams competing in the finals won’t necessarily make a difference. Sooner or later one will be special. Just when that will be continues to fascinate.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him ten.a1716207190reeza1716207190jla@s1716207190gnill1716207190ew.ee1716207190lta1716207190. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport