World Cup 2014: Africa still waits for its heroes

Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana carry the hopes of a continent used to disappointment

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Although the image of Chris Waddle blazing his penalty into the Turin night while “Nessun Dorma” played over the closing credits will be forever imprinted into English minds, it is far from the most painful penalty taken at a World Cup.

The price of Roberto Baggio and David Trezeguet’s misses was the trophy itself, while when Asamoah Gyan struck his in Johannesburg four years ago, the sound of ball hitting bar could be heard right across Africa.

Like so many who fail from a dozen yards, Gyan changed his mind at the last minute. He was going to put it to Fernando Muslera’s right but saw the keeper move fractionally in the same direction.

Gyan hit it straight but too high. At that moment, Luis Suarez, who deep into stoppage time had handled Gyan’s shot on the line, was transformed from a figure crying on the touchline to a Uruguayan national hero.

Tomorrow, against the United States in Natal, Ghana face their first World Cup finals game since that night, when the brief dream of an African nation winning the World Cup in the first tournament Africa had ever staged flickered and died.

Italian forward Roberto Baggio watches his penalty kick go over the crossbar


African football made a soggy start to this tournament by the rainswept beaches of Natal. Cameroon became the first African nation to reach a quarter-final in 1990 but have performed humiliatingly badly ever since.

They began with Samuel Eto’o issuing a statement as to why the Cameroon players had refused to meet the country’s president, Philémon Yang, or board their plane to Brazil until they were given an extra $10,300 (£6,000) each.

“We hope that those who were offended by our insistence will be able to forgive it,” the Chelsea striker said in a statement. Those watching them from the nation’s capital, Yaoundé, would find it hard to forgive a shoddy display against Mexico that has gone a long way to ensuring that Eto’o and his team will be boarding a plane back to Cameroon rather more promptly than they took the outbound flight.

While Ghana face an American side they knocked out of the previous two World Cups, Ivory Coast began their latest fling in the tournament in the small hours of Sunday morning. Like Cameroon, ability has not been matched by results. They may be impressively skippered by Yaya Touré but this is a man who is reportedly seeking a transfer from Manchester City because he was not wished a happy birthday.

The draw has not been kind to Ghana, although they will play all three of their group games amid the heat and humidity of the Brazilian north-east. Their final warm-up match was a 4-0 destruction of South Korea in Miami that echoed the 6-1 demolition of Egypt that confirmed their passage to Brazil.

It is 40 years since the first nation from sub-Saharan Africa qualified for a World Cup finals, and in 1974 Zaire confirmed every known prejudice. Seen as the personal plaything of the country’s despotic president, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, they arrived in West Germany in a specially chartered Boeing 747, where they were served Courvoisier cognac and Cuban cigars.

Later, after a 9-0 thrashing by Yugoslavia, the players were informed by Mobutu’s representatives that they were “scum and sons of whores” and if they lost their last match, against Brazil, by more than three goals “they would never see their families again” (they squeaked in, losing 3-0). The Zaire players had been promised $20,000 (£12,000), a house and a car but, when they returned to Kinshasa, all they were given were their lives.

Money is still an issue in African football. Nigeria, who arrived late to the Confederations Cup last year because of rows over payments, had similar arguments before setting up base in Campinas, 62 miles north of Sao Paulo, where the mothers of three high-profile Brazilian footballers – Grafite, Luis Fabiano and Rogerio – were kidnapped .

Nigeria should be one of the great powers of world football. In 1994 and 1998 they topped their World Cup groups in the United States and France and won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Yet they have never made a quarter-final.

Money, stability and internal rows have long been a cancer which their manager, Stephen Keshi, has moved to address. Keshi, known in Lagos as “Big Boss”, is a strong man, who has won the Africa Cup of Nations as both player and manager, and in charge of Nigeria he needs to be.

After winning the Africa Cup of Nations Keshi resigned, alleging that the Nigerian Football Federation had actually booked flights back home before they played their quarter-final against Ivory Coast. He withdrew his resignation a day later but used it as a bargaining tool to ensure his team were given business-class travel and a properly equipped training camp in the United States.

He also addressed head-on the disunity that has so often dragged Nigeria down. He ordered John Obi Mikel and Emmanuel Emenike to sit down in front of the team and thrash out their differences after a long-running feud between the Chelsea midfielder and the Fenerbahce striker spilled into the open during their friendly with Greece. Keshi then asked any other players who had complaints to speak up now rather than let it fester when they reached Brazil.

The $100,000 (£60,000) bonus for winning the World Cup – an eighth of what Spain were awarded four years ago – may seem pretty notional, but Nigeria have an easier passage than Ghana, who face Germany and Portugal. Their group includes Bosnia and Iran.

But Nigeria were given a pretty straightforward route to the last 16 in South Africa and failed to win a single match. The Nigerian Football Federation responded by firing the manager, Lars Lagerback, and suspending the team from international competition, the kind of response Mobutu would have admired.


“You can tell they did not have the desire,” said Keshi. “They were not ready to fight and die for their country.” Then, he was speaking from the commentary box. Tomorrow, against Iran, he will see what effect his words have when delivered from the dressing room.