Will The Real Africa Please Stand Up!
Over the past four years, fans all over the globe have eagerly anticipated the biggest showpiece in world football, and now it is finally here. The 2018 FIFA World Cup has already made multiple headlines and we have seen some cracking goals during match round one. Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show with a superb hat-trick against Spain, while Lionel Messi and Neymar have failed to live up to expectations for now. Mexico caused the biggest upset so far in beating defending champions Germany, while it has been a very disappointing start for the African teams.
Thanks to our editor Vuyani Joni, who has given me this platform to express my disappointment with the African representatives’ performances, I will talk you through what has gone wrong for Africa so far. At the time of writing this column, four African teams had played, but none of them had managed to get a single point. Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia, you have let your home countries and the whole of Africa down so far, while Senegal were yet to play at the time of writing. What makes things worse is the manner in which our African brothers have conceded goals in the tournament. It started with Egypt. The Pharaohs have made a much-celebrated return to world football’s biggest stage, qualifying for their first World Cup since 1990. Mohamed Salah, who has been in superb form in the past season, breaking records for Liverpool left, right and centre, scored the 94th-minute penalty against Congo on 8 October 2017 that saw Egypt book their first World Cup ticket in 38 years.
Unfortunately, though, he missed his team’s World Cup opener against two-time winners Uruguay, and I think it was the right decision to rest rather than risk him. His teammates fought bravely, without creating any real openings, but conceded late in the game from a bullet header by Jose Gimenez. It was in the 89th minute when the young Atletico Madrid centre-back broke the hearts of all of Egypt and Africa, annoyingly from a corner in what looked like an act of carelessness, because, in my opinion, teams at this level who are playing bravely over 90 minutes should not concede from a set-piece. Everyone needs to be alert, instead of throwing away 90 minutes of hard work.
But what looks like an unlucky result for the Pharaohs has become the story of the African World Cup so far. Morocco followed Egypt the following day and considering that Spain and Portugal are the other two teams in Group B, the match against Iran was a must-win game for Herve Renard’s side. The Atlas Lions had gone unbeaten in 18 games going into the tournament and didn’t concede a single goal in their African qualifying group, yet we have the same story. They dominated the first half and probably should have registered their name on the score sheet, I will admit that, but again they did not retain their full attention until the final whistle and conceded from a set-piece, when Aziz Bouhaddouz scored an own goal in the fifth minute of injury time. Two down, zero goals, twice defeated by a set-piece in the dying minutes of the game. So disheartening!
Next up was Nigeria. Remember, the Super Eagles were the first African side to qualify. They, too, went unbeaten through their African qualifying group, but the team that boasts accustomed Premier League players such as Chelsea’s Victor Moses, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Leicester City pair Wilfried Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as former Blues midfielder John Obi Mikel, ex-Watford striker Odion Ighalo and ex-Leicester striker Ahmed Musa was not able to carry their qualification form into their first game of the tournament. Everyone was raving about Nigeria’s record-breaking, modern kit, but a very classy performance by Croatia found no response from Naija. In true African fashion in Russia, both goals were conceded from set-pieces – the first after a corner, with the knock-on header by Mario Mandzukic unluckily deflected into his own net by Oghenekaro Etebo. The second goal came from a penalty after, you guessed it, William Troost-Ekong manhandled Mandzukic at another corner. Another corner, another set-piece, zero goals, another defeat. How?
Then it looked like things had changed. Finally, Tunisia scored Africa’s first goal at the World Cup as Ferjani Sassi equalised after Harry Kane’s opener – which came after a corner by the way – against England. Yes, Africa’s first goal at the tournament, maybe things will change from now! Maybe not… Sorry if I sound like a broken record but another corner, another set-piece, cost an African team 90 minutes of hard work as Kane, again, was left unmarked and scored in the first minute of injury time. Kane, of all people, England’s most dangerous player… it is beyond me how our African teams can be so careless. The term ‘schoolboy defending’ has often been used, and I find no better phrase to express my disbelief.
Four games, four defeats, just one goal scored, six goals conceded, all of them from set-pieces, Africa’s summary of the adventure in Russia so far sounds horrible. And if our five teams, the supposedly best teams on the continent, don’t wake up, it could be a hurtful awakening for all of Africa.
Again, by the time of publishing, Senegal will have faced Poland and Egypt will have played their second Group A match against Russia. Hopefully, we will have some points on the scoreboard, because it is time for the real Africa to stand up!
For the love of the game,
for the love of Africa