Chris McGrath: Africa's finest can use World Cup to rid the globe of its ignorance

Talking Sport: The 'Super Eagles' have become bedraggled sparrows, while shedding their swagger
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The Independent Football

You would not get off a boat in Calais, and pronounce yourself in Asia. Yet somehow the fact that you could equally walk from Cairo to Cape Town, or Dakar to Djibouti – assuming you had a pair of stout boots, and plenty of time on your hands – seems to exonerate all manner of generalisations about Africa.

Perhaps the first World Cup on African soil will help us to see the continent through African eyes. To see, that is, African footballers finding the same pride and dignity in representing their respective homelands as Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres or Gianluigi Buffon. African teams will not be there to share a brief, pathetic kinship with privileged Europeans; nor as some gesture of defiance, against famine or dictatorship or corruption or witchcraft. They will be there to win football matches for the people back home in Accra or Abidjan.

Africa has not been put there merely for our entertainment or edification. It has many different faces, though we may paint them as one mask. Even in its contradictions we cannot resist stereotype. How else could it be, when we know Africa either as the planet's last hope, or its greatest despair?

Of course, there are reasons for all this beyond our own ignorance. You need only watch the Cup of Nations this winter to know that African footballers have a pretty zealous sense of geographical context. And to be reminded that their fabulous Diaspora has already heightened not just goodwill, but envy, in those parts of the world where football, as a mirror to society, can reflect decadence or complacency – as well as the wealth or comfort so obviously lacking in much of Africa.

To that extent, those African teams at the World Cup will indeed be carrying a torch – for all of us. Breakthroughs of the sort made by Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup, or Nigeria through the mid-1990s, implied that the youngest football continent could some day take the game to new heights of dynamism and entertainment. And the success in the meantime of that Diaspora – from Samuel Eto'o, in Italy, to Didier Drogba, here, to Yaya Touré in Spain – has not discouraged those hopes.

So what do the qualification travails of Africa's highest achievers tell us? After last weekend's penultimate round of fixtures, Egypt and Nigeria are both in severe danger of missing the party. It would be nice to think that this reflects improving standards throughout Africa. Because otherwise outsiders may well feel justified in perceiving the sort of endemic curse that makes them despair of Africa, north to south, east to west.

The case of Nigeria, admittedly, does not seem terribly encouraging. The "Super Eagles" have become bedraggled sparrows, shedding all the swagger of successive World Cup campaigns, in 1994 and 1998, and an Olympic gold in between. Tunisia would already be beyond reach, at the top of their group, but for Nigeria's last-gasp winner against Mozambique over the weekend. As it is, they need to win their last game, against Kenya next month, and hope that Tunisia slip up against Mozambique.

Nwankwo Kanu is the only survivor among the Eagles who soared, and his peripheral role at the Premier League's bottom club seems to measure his decrepitude nowadays. The next generation, meanwhile, has already been tainted by unease about the overall integrity of the game in Nigeria. As host nation, the Under-17 World Cup squad recently expelled no fewer than 15 members for failing age tests.

The Mozambique game was played at a deserted national stadium and disaffection with the manager, Shuaibu Amodu, may not be confined to the fans. But his salary – vastly less than the club wages commanded by his star players – would not attract a respected name from abroad, and his predecessor, Berti Vogts, did a pretty good job of ensuring that nobody would suggest doing so for a while anyway. Samson Siasia, who coached the Under-23 team to silver at Beijing, is considered a better bet by many.

And what of Egypt, the champions of the continent? They face a do-or-die face-off with Algeria, who remain three points clear after both teams won over the weekend. And none of the players will need reminding of the "previous" between these two teams.

In an identical scenario 20 years ago, Egypt's 1-0 success enabled them to leap-frog Algeria to Italia '90. In front of a huge, hostile crowd, the Algerians felt that the referee lost his nerve, and surrounded him furiously at the end of the game. Trouble continued after the game, most infamously when the Egypt team doctor lost an eye in a hotel brawl. It was only this year that Interpol dropped a warrant for Lakhdar Belloumi, the iconic Algerian striker, in connection with this episode.

By all accounts, Algeria were deserving winners against Egypt at home, in June, and have excelled throughout qualifying. Egypt's success in the African Cup of Nations meanwhile permits no doubt of their pedigree; their domestic league, moreover, is held up as a paradigm for the continent. The suspicion is that either team would acquit itself well in the finals.

By that stage, perhaps we will find that to see the World Cup through African eyes is to wonder why only five nations qualify from five groups and over 50 countries. In contrast, the minnows of Concacaf know that three out of a final six go through, and even a fourth can creep through the back door in a play-off. But if the Africans are accustomed to being treated unfairly, they will not be looking for our sympathy.

Why Maradona could see bid for finals end up on sea bottom

Well, at least he didn't have a brolly. But Diego Maradona's belly slide in Buenos Aires on Saturday may yet come to be seen as a parting indignity no less forlorn than the one forever welded to the reputation of Steve McClaren.

As he wobbled to his feet, Argentina's manager had to hitch up his tracksuit before joining a tearful hug with the author of his "miracle", Martin Palermo. Even by Maradona's chaotic standards, it had been a tumultuous climax. Peru, execrable as they were, had conjured an equaliser in the last minute; and then here was Palermo, 36 years old and playing for his country for the first time in a decade, prodding home from two yards, deep into injury time.

To many eyes, the rainstorm had imbued the scene with a suitably apocalyptic sense of destiny. But it was at precisely the same stage of Uruguay's game in Quito – the 93rd minute – that Ecuador conceded a penalty and Diego Forlan made his own intervention.

So Maradona brings his hysterical, tragi-comic circus to Montevideo tomorrow knowing that its hosts could not only supplant Argentina in the final World Cup qualifying slot, but also leave their play-off claims vulnerable to Ecuador, who play Chile – still hung over, no doubt, after securing their own place at the finals.

And, however depressing for neutrals, if things go against Argentina they deserve exactly what they get. Hiring Maradona was an act of folly. Sure enough, he has selected 78 different players in 11 games, even so managing to overlook outstanding candidates in Europe. His team cannot defend; nor can it find a place for Walter Samuel. And he has meanwhile stifled the magic even in Lionel Messi.

In Montevideo, 70,000 voices will unite in reminding Maradona that he does not have an exclusive birthright; Uruguay, after all, have won two World Cups of their own. They say that other nations have their history; and Uruguay has its football. Well, that and the Graf Spee. And, before the week is out, that belly-flop could look like nothing so much as Captain Langsdorff scuttling his pocket battleship.

Geraghty's instinct for invention could shift Jonny aside

Shane Geraghty still had a couple of desperate Munster tackles to break on Saturday but already he was grinning. It might just have been a random rictus of endeavour; but if the expression was at all consistent with the rest of his game, then it disclosed his delight in the impudence of his tap-penalty.

Munster had dozed, expecting him to take the three points on a silver tray. They would perhaps have been fully justified in doing so, had they been playing Toulon. So it will duly be highly instructive of Martin Johnson's ambitions for England whether he dares to give Geraghty a chance at fly-half in the autumn internationals, ahead of Jonny Wilkinson.

It is not just rivals to Wilkinson who are injured, of course, so Johnson might well take the more conservative option of playing Geraghty at centre instead. But it has become increasingly viewed as imperative to have defensive beef at 12, rather than the sort of twinkle-toes who can change a game in a trice.

We have been here before, naturally, and not so long ago. The way Danny Cipriani was handled means that Johnson knows what not to do with Geraghty. But can he figure out exactly what he should do instead?

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