A History of African teams in the FIFA World Cup: Trailblazing nations, Legendary Matches and Near Misses

In a little over a week’s time, the 2018 FIFA world cup will be upon us, and for a month Africans can enjoy day to day football as they root for their favorite national teams. Africa has a long and chequered for history at the world cup, and despite never winning the tournament, has adorned it with some of its most memorable matches and moments.

In total, 13 different African countries have participated in 12 different world cups from 1934 to 2014, and the 2018 world cup will have five African countries participating in the tournament. These thirteen countries are Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Egypt, DR Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, and Tunisia.

The first African team to ever participate at the FIFA world cup was Egypt, popularly known as the pharaohs, all the way back in 1934 when only 16 countries took part in a straight knockout tournament, and Egypt lost its match to Hungary 4-2 in highly controversial circumstances. Africa exited that tournament with its head held high but little did anyone know that it would take forty-four years for another African country to grace football’s premier tournament.

Between 1934 and 1970, no African country participated in the FIFA world cup, which was held regularly every four years save four after a 12-year hiatus between 1938 and 1950. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the Second World War, colonialism, apartheid and a multitude of no-shows by Africa which had to compete with Asian and oceanic region countries for a single berth at the tournament.

1970: Africa makes a comeback

In 1970, Morocco was the sole African representative to the world cup, with CAF being granted one slot. The North Africans made a good account of themselves, with a solitary draw against Bulgaria, being the first point ever by an African nation at the showpiece event. From 1970 onwards, every world cup has had at least one representative from Africa.

1978: Africa gets its first win at the world cup
In 1978, Tunisia was the sole African representatives to the world cup, and they put in a superb show, thrashing the highly regarded Mexican side 3-1, as well as holding the mighty west Germans to a nil draw and losing narrowly to Poland 1-0. Africa had well and truly arrived at the global stage. In the next world cup, Africa would have its representation doubled to two countries.

1982: the disgrace of Gijon
In 1982, Africa was represented by two nations: Cameroon and Algeria. Cameroon more than held their own in their group, drawing against Peru, Poland, and Italy, and exiting the world cup without a loss. However, the real controversy happened in the Algeria group which also had West Germany, Austria, and Chile. Algeria provided one of the all-time great shocks at the world cup, beating West Germany 2-1 in the opening fixture, before losing 2 1 to Austria. They finished their group matches with an entertaining 3-2 defeat of Chile.

The West Germans and Austria then played each other the day after Algeria’s final match knowing that a 1-0 or 2-0 victory for West Germany would mean both they and Austria would qualify at the expense of Algeria on goal difference. What then followed is one of the most controversial football matches in FIFA world cup history: the disgrace of Gijon. West Germany scored after ten minutes, and for the rest of the 80, the game was played at a pedestrian pace. So blatant were both teams in failing to mount any attacks that the Austrian commentator Robert Seeger is said to have told the watching viewers to switch
off their television sets.

Indeed, after the disgrace of Gijon, FIFA decreed that all final group stage matches must be played at the same time to avoid a repeat, and this law stands to date.

1990: Cameroon shock champions Argentina
In 1990, the world had become used to African countries doing well in the tournament. However, the indomitable lions of 1990 broke history by being the first African country to reach the quarter-finals as well as beat the defending champions. No countries except for Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 (more on them later) has reached the last eight since.

The tournament is mostly remembered for Roger Mila, one of Africa’s greatest footballers, being one of the oldest footballers (38) to score at the world cup, as well as his memorable celebratory dancing. Yet, it would have all gone so differently, with Roger Mila having to be persuaded by Cameroon president Paul Biya to participate in the tournament, having hang his boots and gone into retirement. The one nil loss handed to Argentina by Cameroon is widely regarded as one of the biggest shocks in the history of the FIFA world cup. Cameroon would go on to narrowly lose to England 3-2 at the quarter-final stage, but they ensured they had set a benchmark that is yet to be surpassed by any African nation ever since.

2002: the lions of Teranga stun defending champions France
Between 1990 and 1998 is what many would consider the high water mark of African football. In 1996, the Nigerian super eagles won the Olympics football tournament, and with players such as Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, and Austin Jay Jay Okocha, are widely considered the best African football team of modern times.

However, no African team would make the quarters until the Senegalese did so in 2002. The lions of Teranga, as they are widely known, played a superb counter-attacking game and stunned defending champions France 1-0. Players such as Henri Camara, Aliou Cisse, El Hadj Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop captured the imagination of a continent and rode their wave all the way to the quarters, where they lost a golden goal to turkey. The Senegalese squad would mostly go ahead to make a name for themselves in the European big leagues, with the likes of Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop impressing at Liverpool and Portsmouth respectively in the English premier league.

2010: Africa hosts the world cup, and Ghana makes the quarterfinals
In 2010, South Africa became the first and so far, the only African Country to host the FIFA world cup. The 2010 world cup did not have any vintage nations, however, a country and indeed the continent was taken into rapturous celebrations, when Siphiwe Tshabalala answered critics who had derided the South Africans as one of the weakest host countries in the world cup history with a thunderbolt against Mexico.

However, the real drama was yet to come. The well drilled and young Ghana side impressed, with players such as Asamoah Gyan, Kevin Prince Boateng and John Mensah driving  Ghana to a quarterfinal match against Uruguay. Uruguay dominated as the first half drew to a close, Sulley Muntari got the ball near the halfway line, dribbled and hit an ambitious left footed shot on goal. The ball bounced awkwardly in front of the Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and went in, the Ghanaians went into the break ahead. The second half saw concerted pressure on the Ghana goal, and midway through, the Uruguayans were awarded a freekick on the left-hand side of the field. Diego
Forlan, their star player, took it and had only one thing in mind. A vicious freekick with his right foot and Richard Kingson was deceived by the flight of the Jabulani and Uruguay leveled. The game stayed level after ninety, and the match had to go to extra time.

The thirty minutes that followed were panicky, gripping fare, with Uruguay, generally having more of the ball. As the thirty minutes drew to a close, Ghana sent a cross into the box. It was cleared, with Asamoah Gyan shooting on goal, cleared off the line. Another shot by Appiah was headed in until an Uruguay hand cleared it off the line: Luis Suarez was sent off and the black stars were awarded a penalty. Surely, with the last kick of the game, Ghana was headed to the semifinals? Up stepped Asamoah Gyan, star of the team, from 12 yards.

Asamoah  Gyan and Stephen Appiah at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa

With the whole of Africa waiting in bated breath, Asamoah Gyan took his penalty and blasted it off the crossbar and out, with the last kick of the game. The black stars would then go on to lose the penalty shootout in heartbreaking fashion.

2014: two African countries in the last 16
African nations went ahead to give a good show in Brazil, 2014, with both Nigeria and Algeria progressing from their groups then falling at the last 16 hurdle to European powerhouses France and Germany.

There seems to be a plateauing of African countries in terms of talent, with there being no African country capable of breaching the last 8, but African countries being used to progressing past the group stages.

Will the 2018 version be different? with Tunisia, Morocco, and Nigeria, Africa has three of its most experienced protagonists at the world stage, and the Senegalese and Egyptians are also in relatively easy groups. Will Russia 2018 be Africa’s time to shine?

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