COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It stands to reason that the closest an African player has ever come to winning the World Cup Golden Boot was in 1990, when Roger Milla's four goals propelled Cameroon to a place in the history books. After all, the more games played, the greater the chances of scoring; group stage exits, largely the continent's lot down the years, do not suggest prolific attacking.
Milla was bested eventually by Salvatore Schillaci, who finished with six as Italy went one better and played two more games.
However, this logic does not always hold: subsequent Golden Boot winners James Rodriguez and Miroslav Klose, in 2014 and 2006 respectively, essentially won by dominating the Group Stage.
This also can be rationalized: the competitive level gets much higher as one advances further, and matches become tighter affairs. A favorable group can see players streak ahead in the goalscoring stakes.
Therefore, in considering whether an African player can win a Golden Boot, it is necessary to look both at the prospects of the nation concerned (i.e. progress beyond the first round), as well as the strength (on average) of their group opponents, based on Fifa's rankings.
So let's take a look at each country's most likely Golden Boot contender.
Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
No surprises here, as Salah is the main attacking outlet for the Pharaohs. With Hector Cuper's side hardly dazzling going forward, they are heavily dependent on the Liverpool man producing moments of inspiration and exploiting weaknesses in the opponent's defensive structure.
On paper, Egypt also have the easiest group to navigate of all the African teams.
Per Fifa's Ranking, their group stage opponents average 667 points, significantly lower than their 805, while hosts Russia are the lowest ranking nation at the Mundial. This appears to present a prime opportunity to Salah, who has come into a rich vein of form.
Group A promises few goals though—even Uruguay, the highest placed team in terms of the Fifa Rankings, are renowned more for their pragmatism under Oscar Tabarez than attacking flair. This means, paradoxically, that there is a greater chance of Egypt progressing than there is of Salah gathering a hatful.
Sadio Mane, Keita Balde (Senegal)
Up next is the dynamic duo of Keita and Mane, on whose shoulders Senegal's attacking ambitions lie.
The sheer unpredictability of these two, allied to their ability to impact a game out of nothing, makes them prime candidates to register in a big way.
On their day, the Teranga Lions are a handful in attack, possessing searing pace and fluidity, and their solidity through the middle means they are rarely exposed at the back.
While both Colombia and Poland rank highly, the presence of lowly Japan sees the group average for ranking points plummet to 962.33. Senegal ought to fancy their chances against the Samurai Blue, and if the former two take a point off each other, a draw against either (most likely Poland, not the quickest in defence) will stand Aliou Cisse's men in good stead.
Yassine Khenissi, Youssef Msakni (Tunisia)
For one thing, the Carthage Eagles now have, in Taha Khenissi, a striker to relegate the profligate Ahmed Akaichi. However, there can be no denying Msakni is the beating heart of the Tunisian attack, capable of both scoring and creating.
Will that be enough?
Well, Panama are the soft touch of the group, and Tunisia will have to take a win off them to stand any kind of chance. There is some hope for an upset against either a still slightly imbalanced Belgium or an England team lacking conviction and identity.
What might hamper both they and Senegal is the fact they are on the (slightly) stronger side of the draw, and so there will likely be a greater onus on what can be done in the first round.
Khalid Boutaib, Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Boutaib is something of a late bloomer, but he has taken to international football like a duck to water. Not a moment too soon for Herve Renard, whose vulpine wiliness had previously fallen short due to a blunt edge upfront.
Boutaib plundered a hattrick in the demolition of Mali in qualifying, and will lead the line for the Atlas Lions in Russia. He will, however, be facing much tougher opposition: Portugal are reigning European champions, whole Spain are...well, Spain. Iran are an unfussy but obdurate side, and will not roll over.
Morocco will invariably defend deep (a strategy in which they are well versed) and play on the counter attack, and will try to find Boutaib in behind the opposition defence, while also relying on the dribbling of Ziyech.
Set pieces will be crucial as well, and there are few better with dead balls than the Ajax attacking midfielder.
If they do somehow scrape through a tight group, they will find a Round of 16 tie against one of the sides from Group A more negotiable.
Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Of all the African representatives, Nigeria are perhaps the hardest to divine a Golden Boot candidate for. That is because this is a team which scores in so many different ways, and who commit a lot of players forward on counter attacks.
Another factor is that there is some uncertainty, both regarding personnel and shape. The most recent international, an impressive comeback win over Argentina, saw a whole new attacking duo in Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi, neither of whom are certain starters.
However, Moses remains the most important player in attack for Gernot Rohr's side, and scored three times in qualifying.
This is a side well capable of blowing teams away, and they could find joy against top-heavy sides like Croatia and Argentina. Whether that translates to a major goal haul for any one player remains to be seen.