Can Africa win the World Cup?

Since the formation of the World Cup in 1930, European and South American nations have dominated the competition. Of the 21 World Cups, European representatives have won 12 of them while South America has won the remaining nine. 

With FIFA’s recent and growing emphasis on developing football in the rest of the world, the question among many international football fans has been: when will Europe and South America’s hold over the World Cup end? And which continent will it be? North America, Asia, Oceania, or Africa?  

Among these four confederations, Africa seems most likely to win – given the continent’s vast and diverse wealth of talent. Africa has developed some of the world’s best players right now. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Salah, and Sadio Mane are some of the world’s best attackers. Riyad Mahrez and Hakim Ziyech are arguably two of the best flairy creators in World football, while Wilfred Ndidi and Thomas Partey have established themselves as world class central defensive midfielders. And don’t forget Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the world’s best centre-backs. 

The likes of Asia and North America do not have this much talent, with South Korean attacker Heung-Min Son arguably the only world class talent from those regions. 

African nations have long entered the World Cup with low expectations. It’s hard to expect an African representative to go into the competition as a favorite when the furthest Africa has gone at the World Cup being the quarter-finals (Cameroon 1990, Senegal 2002 and Ghana 2010). Africa was not even given a guaranteed spot at the World Cup until 1970, following CAF’s boycott from the 1966 edition. 

Perhaps the first joy the continent ever experienced at the World Cup was in 1982 when the tournament was played in Spain. Algeria, in their first World Cup appearance, were placed in a group of death with West Germany, Austria and Chile, all of whom knew a thing or two about playing football at the world’s biggest stage.

Playing their first match against perhaps the most in-form side at the time, Algeria became the subject of ridicule prior to the start of the encounter with some of the West Germany players boasting about which member of their family they would dedicate each goal they score to amongst their wives and dogs.

But Algeria were not to be intimidated, shocking the world as they strolled to a 2-1 victory against such a massive opponent in a match which would later be remembered as one of the most impressive underdog performances in the World Cup. After losing 2-0 in their subsequent fixture against Austria, Algeria recovered rather superbly to beat Chile 3-2 in their last match of the group stage to put them in pole position to qualify for the next stage of the tournament.

Algeria were patiently waiting for what would transpire in the match between Germany and Austria with the result set to have a significant bearing on what would become of the Africans.

West Germany and Austria knew that a 1-0 or 2-0 for the former would guarantee qualification for the two European sides so they conspired to play out a 1-0 victory to the Germans. The absolute lack of effort from both sides was evident and the incident led to the elimination of the beautiful African side from the tournament.

This caused FIFA to amend the format of the competition with the final match of every group stage now being played simultaneously to avoid a repeat of the incident.

Ghana’s 2010 performance was the closest Africa got to reaching World Cup glory, when they were infamously eliminated in the quarter-finals after Luis Suarez’ handball and Asamoah Gyan’s ensuing penalty miss. 

While Ghana’s elimination was heartbreaking, it showed how football is often a game of fine margins. With the right amount of preparation and luck, any team can win any game. What’s stopping a well-prepared African team from going on and winning the whole thing? 

It’s about time that Africa’s mindset regarding the World Cup changed. Africa must chase after the ultimate and no less. The continent can no longer settle for a quarter-final berth as an achievement, it is simply unacceptable. Africa must win the World Cup. 

When will this happen though? In the next 10 years? 50? Will it happen in our lifetime? 

Africa has notoriously poor footballing infrastructure compared to those of Europe and South America, but with FIFA’s development plan to improve African football, we could see this change very soon. 

It will be a gradual process. Improvement at the grassroots level will see the improvement of the local leagues, which will create better national player pools. This will cause the national teams to improve, but it doesn’t stop there. Many of the best footballers of African descent play for European national teams. Some even jokingly asserted that France’s World Cup victory in 2018 should be credited to Africa, given the fact that a majority of their team was of African origin. 

Should the quality of African national teams improve to the extent where they can challenge for the World Cup, dual-national starlets will be enticed to play for the country of their origin. 

A Lion’s Challenge: Senegal’s hunt for African glory

We have already seen this with Senegal, with the most notable example being Kalidou Koulibaly choosing to play for Senegal after representing France at the youth level. 

Egypt’s qualification to the 2018 World Cup off the back of Mohamed Salah’s stardom and Algeria’s 2019 AFCON glory led by captain Riyad Mahrez show how far stars can lead their nation, but they need excellent supporting casts if they want to reach further heights. 

On the other side of the spectrum, teams like Ghana and Nigeria are without world class stars but are able to compete because of deep national pools. 

Africa has without a doubt the most potential on the world stage, but it will take time and development before we see an African nation lift the World Cup trophy.