With a record six African representatives at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it is distinctly possible that one or more will advance much further than expected in the tournament...
For a country and a continent that have endured so much hardship despite having so much to offer, the fact that the World's premier sporting event was seemingly stolen from under our collective noses due to the New Zealand association football administrator’s mysterious decision to abstain from voting was downright depressing.
However, thanks to FIFA’s now defunct continental rotation selection process, Africa’s time in the limelight eventually came four years later when South Africa edged Morocco by 14 votes to 10 on May 15, 2004 and was officially awarded the 2010 World Cup.
Apart from the symbolic meaning this has for the continent as a whole, it is also an indication of better things to come for South Africa and the greater region from an economic perspective. While no one discounts the amount of visibility, development, and unity this will bring to Africa, one major factor that is sometimes lost in the excitement is the sporting aspect of the landmark decision.
The fact that the World Cup will be held in Africa for the first time in its history means that the African teams who book their ticket to the tournament will have a better chance of advancing to the later rounds than ever before.
The furthest an African team has gone was in 2002 when Senegal shocked the World by defeating holders France in their opening match of the competition and then proceeding to the quarter-finals where they were knocked out by Turkey in extra-time.
This happened on what some would have considered, especially at the time, neutral territory of sorts (South Korea and Japan) and leads one to believe that an African team might make it further if they are spurred on by strong local support, something which all teams representing the continent will surely receive once they qualify.
The surprise advancement of South Korea and Germany to the semi-final in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, respectively, lends credence to the argument that home support can have a significant impact.
Add to that the fact that the tournament will feature more African representatives than it ever has before (six if you include the hosts), then it is not far-fetched for these teams to aspire to reach the second round and advance as far as the semi-finals or even to the trophy match itself.
The situation is a far cry from the 1978 games in Argentina where there was only one African team present. It was there that Tunisia made history by winning the first match by any African squad at the World Cup.
The unprecedented achievement was made in the group stages where Abdelmajid Chetali’s men came from behind to defeat Mexico by the score of 3-1, prompting chants of “Tunez! Tunez!” to ring out in the stadium.
While the Carthage Eagles narrowly missed out on the second round, the North Africans’ impressive performances are what led FIFA to allot more World Cup places to teams from the African continent.
With the exception of South Africa 2010, the current total of five African representatives is widely believed to be insufficient by those who pay attention to the football being played across the continent.
The improvement of the level of play within the national team set-ups has been particularly interesting to observe over the course of the years and it can be mainly attributed to the high number of African players plying their trade in top European leagues as well as the exporting of European coaches.
It is no coincidence that scouts from across the world come to Africa in search of talent as it has already proved itself to be an exceptional resource.
While it is arguably a by-product of this phenomenon, the improvement of individuals has led to the betterment of their national teams as a whole, who benefit from their experience and newly-adopted training techniques.
Finally, one would not be mistaken in thinking that a successful run by one or perhaps two of the six African teams who qualify for the World Cup could re-open the discussion on whether it is time to allot more places to the CAF region at the tournament. In fact, many analysts rightly believe that such a decision is overdue given the nature of today’s international football landscape.
Rami Ayari, Goal.com