BEIRUT: Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century did not come to fruition.
Ten years later, however, Ghana were en route to fulfilling Pele’s prophecy, only to be thwarted by the hand of football’s resident bad-guy Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals.
Four years on it was hoped that African teams could build on this success and make an unprecedented appearance in the coveted semifinals stage. With a continuously growing presence of Africans at top European clubs and a range of players now having experience in multiple World Cups, expectations were running high prior to Brazil 2014.
While there was on-field improvement at this year’s tournament, which marked the first time that two African teams progressed to the knockout stages, much of their success was largely overshadowed by mishandled money and match-fixing scandals.
Bonus disputes were at the forefront of most of the news coming out of African team camps from the very onset of the World Cup.
Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria’s presidents all had to step in to solve bonus disputes that should have been dealt with prior to the World Cup.
Cameroon’s players arrived in Brazil a day late, as they refused to board the plane until the issue was resolved and Ghana had to resort to airlifting $3 million in cash from Accra to Brasilia.
The recurring issue was centered around the fact that FIFA awards nations with prize money after the tournament is completed, depending on their performance. Players are given bonuses out of this prize money but they are usually – across the globe – paid in advance.
Footballing associations should have dealt with this issue in the one-month buildup to the tournament but poor management led to players growing frustrated and attempting to force the money through.
It has also reflected poorly on the image of the teams, as it contrasted with similarly austere nations such as Greece whose players donated their salaries to build training facilities for youth.
To make matters worse, match-fixing allegations seeped out during the course of the group stages from different outlets.
The Ghanaian Football Association was the subject of allegations of match-fixing from the British press and Cameroonian players were accused of rigging the outcome of their match against Croatia.
While they vehemently deny these claims and investigations remain ongoing, the scandals added further misery to what should have been a joyous tournament for Africa.
Star-studded teams were one of the main ingredients for enthusiasm in the buildup to the World Cup, as Africa now boasts a wide array of players that are employed by top European clubs. Unfortunately, players seem more concerned with securing contracts at big European clubs or staying fit for their incumbent employers than performing well for their country.
“They want to assert themselves and win a contract in Europe, so teamwork suffers,” Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic told Agence France Presse. “That is why African football is unable to realize its full potential.”
Clearly aware of this problem, Halilhodzic comprised his Algeria team of mostly French-born players, who play across Europe but often at midtable clubs in multiple European leagues and was aptly rewarded.
Algeria quietly came into this tournament as the highest ranked team on the continent and went on to prove why.
As a credit to their Bosnian-French coach the team played with absolute cohesion and their four-goal romp of South Korea was one of the best displays of the event. They were unlucky to be defeated by Germany in the last-16 as the match went down to the very wire.
They were unscathed by match-fixing scandals and while other African teams were head-butting each other and breaking laptops, the Algerians put on a show of unity that endeared them to the entire world. Unconfirmed reports stated that the Algerian squad may even be donating their prize money to Palestinians in Gaza.
Their solidarity is a stark contrast to the picture of Ghana’s John Boye kissing his share of the $3 million before scoring an own goal that helped knock his team out of the tournament.
Algeria may be a model for the future teams of Africa. As opposed to assembling star-studded teams, they focused on building a side that works well together over an extended period. This could help teams avoid the divisions that are usually created by the presence of superstars – which is common in many European teams also, such as Holland and France.
Star players also have too much influence over decision-making. For example, veteran striker Samuel Eto’o is reported to have the final say on team selection in Cameroon, a practice unheard of at any level in football.
Astute management of finances should also be at the top of African teams’ agendas for the future. The Cameroonian and Ghanaian governments are launching investigations into their recent World Cup failures but they will not have to look far.
Simply ensuring players are paid on time will avoid a great deal of unnecessary off-field distractions.
The Confederation of African Football is currently lobbying FIFA for a sixth spot at the World Cup. The numbers are on their side, with 56 member associations in Africa and only five places at the World Cup compared to Europe’s 54 member associations and 13 places.
Lack of success on the pitch and consistent antics off may mean that Africa will have to wait a lot longer before they’re granted a larger piece of the pie.