Will African teams score at World Cup 2010?

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – On the eve of World Cup 2010, thousands of South Africans are celebrating on the streets. Soweto is rocking with a concert at the Orlando stadium.

More African teams than ever before are competing in the World Cup. Will this be the first ever World Cup won by an African team?

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The continent has long produced some of the world’s best players, but talent has by and large failed to translate into success on the sport’s biggest stage. An incident with the Togo team at the last World Cup encapsulates many of the issues that have plagued African teams.

On the eve of participating in their first-ever World Cup in 2006, Togo’s players and coach engaged in a tense battle with their own soccer federation over bonuses. The players threatened to strike, and the newly installed German coach resigned.

The matter was eventually resolved as a result of pressure from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, which attempted to avoid an embarrassing no-show in the world’s most watched sporting event. But the damage had been done. Togo went on to lose all three of their group matches, and an unflattering light was cast on African soccer once again.

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No African side has ever made it past the World Cup quarterfinals, while South America and Europe have collected all the titles so far. Even Asia — a continent where the popularity of the sport is a relatively recent phenomenon — has bested Africa with South Korea’s 2002 semifinal performance.

Hope is running high that during this World Cup — the first to take place on African soil — an African team will exceed expectations and reach at least the semifinals. After all, with Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and hosts South Africa, the African contingent is larger than ever before, and African sides will benefit from home advantage for the first time.

But past history, a tough draw and injuries to star players suggest this is unlikely to happen.

The lack of success of African teams in the World Cup is often explained by rampant indiscipline on the players’ part, but Carlos Amato, a South African soccer columnist, places more blame on African soccer administration. The bad governance and corruption prevalent in many African governments often extends to their soccer federations, and payment issues such as those experienced by Togo are commonplace.

While European teams often keep the same coach on the job for years — several managers for European teams in this year’s World Cup were already in place four years ago — the tenure of African teams’ coaches is typically short and often ends at inopportune times. When renowned Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic was replaced at the helm of Ivory Coast after a lackluster performance at the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, it did little to enhance the Elephants’ prospects in South Africa.

“Three months before a World Cup is never the right time” to change the coach, Amato said.

Many of the sport’s top talents have emerged from Africa, but the continent has not always reaped the benefits. Starting with Mozambique-born Eusebio in the 1960s, who played for colonial power Portugal, many African players have bolstered European national sides, and the trend continues today. France, for instance, counts two players born in Africa and a host of players of African descent in its squad for this year’s World Cup.

The uneven distribution of talent also means that most African teams are composed of a handful of stars and a supporting cast of players who ply their trade in weak domestic leagues or second-tier European ones. The result is that when a team’s star player is injured or underperforms, chances of success plummet. Ghana, who will have to do without injured midfielder Michael Essien and Ivory Coast, whose captain Didier Drogba just broke his arm, will have to learn to cope with this new reality.

“It’s often that African teams have two or three players who are not quite up to scratch,” Amato said. “It’s always been clear that some of the best players in the world are African, but to create a balanced team is difficult.”

All hope is not lost for African sides, though. Drogba has rejoined his Ivory Coast teammates with a cast on his arm and still harbors hope of playing in the tournament. Previously unheralded South Africa’s Bafana Bafana are looking better by the day after a months-long preparation.

“Bafana Bafana have picked up good results of late,” said Ed Aarons, a British soccer journalist for the Citizen, a South African newspaper. “If I had to bet I would bet for them to get through” the group stage at least.

One person who thinks the time is ripe for an African team to succeed is Mfouapon Alassa, a 37-year-old craftsman from Cameroon who plays soccer on Sundays. Clad in the green jersey of Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, Alassa said his favorite team is so strong that it could even afford to lose Samuel Eto’o, a star striker who has been criticized for a perceived lack of commitment to the national team.

“We can do better than before,” Alassa said, referring to Cameroon’s quarterfinal in the 1990 World Cup. “Based on the ability of our players we can even win the final.”

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