James Lawton: England can dream of lifting cup but African sides will steal show

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David Beckham may have been merely doing his bit for the old country but it was still hard not to gag when swallowing his tributes to Jack Warner, the delegate from Trinidad whose son’s World Cup ticket caper in Germany became an ugly focus of attention three years ago, and Sepp Blatter, Fifa president and the game’s ultimate pragmatist."

It certainly made you speculate about the lengths to which England's campaign to host the 2018 tournament might stretch.

Perhaps Her Majesty could put a Buck House suite or two at the disposal of Blatter and Warner and their cronies shortly before the last arguments are made. Such abasement is, after all, only a matter of degree and Beckham's genuflection before Warner and Blatter did suggest that there was plenty more of that disposable dignity on tap.

In the meantime it can only be a huge relief to respond to the drum beats of African football heralding what could easily prove the greatest of World Cups, one which would already have happened if Fifa had responded to the imperatives of football history rather than the thrilling rustle of the big bucks.

Some of us raged that the Football Association claims that Germany had broken a "gentleman's agreement" when they pushed successfully for their second staging of the tournament in 2006 were Old World backroom irrelevances when compared to the argument for sending the great tournament to Africa for the first time. Now, there is considerable reason to believe, vindication is at hand.

It is the vindication of those who have noted the rising tide of evidence that in the vital matter of producing great talent and competitive spirit there is no more thrilling terrain in football than the vast tract of it which separates Cairo from Cape Town.

When the draw was made last night beneath the splendour of Table Mountain, not to mention Charlize Theron, it was indeed possible to believe in Fabio Capello's hard-headed assessment that an African nation might well make it to the semi-finals for the first time and, who knows, given the residing passion for the game, what might develop from that historic foundation.

Most World Cup finals produce an outstanding player. We can tick them off as we trawl back down the years: Argentina '78, Mario Kempes; Spain '82, Paolo Rossi; Mexico '86, Maradona; US '94, Romario; France '98, Zinedine Zidane; Japan and South Korea '02, Ronaldo; Germany '06, Fabio Cannavaro. 2010? Didier Drogba and Michael Essien are surely serious candidates of immense power.

The force that propels them is the classic one that for nearly two decades now has been imprinting an awareness of African football at the top of the European game.

England were exposed to the possibilities of this football revolution mostly hazardously in Naples in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup when, with the help of two late penalties by Gary Lineker, they held off the challenge of Cameroon. The Africans outplayed England for much of the game. Inspired by the artistry and the personality of Roger Milla, they opened up the stunning possibility that they might succeed Argentina, the reigning champions they had overwhelmed, ferociously and sometimes cynically, in the opening game of the tournament at San Siro. You had to wonder if that was the dawn of the age of African football but it was too soon for anyone to dream such dreams. We discovered that four years later in Oxnard, California, where Cameroon set up their training camp and their French coach Henri Michel complained that he had to pay for the players' soft drinks and sticking plasters from out of his own pocket. The team threatened to strike when their bonus for qualifying went unpaid and when it did arrive, shortly before they went out to play Russia in the final group game, it proved less than inspiring. The Russians won 6-1.

However, the Cameroon had left impressive footprints and they were re-visited by Senegal in the opening game of 2002 on a rainy night in Seoul, when the champions France were beaten 1-0. In Germany, Ghana fell to what was left of Brazil's cutting edge in the second round and Drogba made a stirring impact with the Ivory Coast.

Now there has to be the suspicion that the African challenge is back in place – and more seriously than ever before in the formidable shape of Drogba and his Ivorian team-mates.

It is of little surprise to the great English coach Malcolm Allison, who in 1971 saw the astonishing potential of the players who had emerged from the townships of Johannesburg when he managed a team of big-name English players against South Africa in a series of "Test" matches against white players. When Allison took his team for a one-off match against a black team in the old Orlando Stadium in Soweto he and players like Frank McLintock, Rodney Marsh and Don Rogers were dazzled both by the skills that were set before them and the passion of a crowd which refused to be subdued by a heavy police presence reinforced by Alsatian dogs.

Allison recalled: "The level of skill, the sheer joy of their players, was a revelation. None of us had experienced anything like it before. All their players had nicknames and the one who most caught our eye was called 'Card Shuffler', and he was amazing. In any situation he could reach down into the pack and produce something quite brilliant. Apartheid was being enforced so grimly then and you had to wonder what would become of all this talent which could never reach beyond those townships. But you just had to believe that it couldn't be contained forever."

Thirty-eight years on the suspicion of the football man has been confirmed quite extravagantly in the giddy celebrations of Cape Town these last few days – and with it a reminder that if a nation, or in this case a Continent, believes enough in a game, and its own place at its heart, it will reap rewards way beyond the means of some fumbling committee and all its confections of networking.

The beauty of the African World Cup is that it didn't have to go begging for favours, it didn't have to lard its appeal with some desperate search for the right people to generate the most valuable hype. It simply demanded its rightful place in the history of the game, asked why it had to wait behind such football cultures as North America and Japan and South Korea before football would see its first African dawn.

There is, of course, nothing quite like an African dawn in its light and its clamour of nature and if you have experienced it once you are in the beginnings of addiction.

Capello, who you might have thought by now had filled his cup of experience, is visibly thrilled to be involved for the first time as the coach of a World Cup team – and especially in a tournament with such potential for pushing back the boundaries of the game. Still, he retains the head of an old pro and currently frets about the quality of the pitches in England's proposed headquarters. It is this combination of passion and professionalism which invites most optimism on behalf of a team which went to the last two World Cups as though they were Old Boy re-unions with a little bit of football thrown in.

Can England win? It is not so easy to believe they will match the fluency or the power of Brazil or the rhythmic poise of European champions Spain, both of whom have suggested a division of class in recent friendly action. Yet Capello is a realist and if his team fails you have to believe that for once it will not be because of any lack of proper preparation, physically or psychologically.

This, surely, is not a little to say when we contemplate a World Cup that has the potential to make both superb football and dramatic history. It is a beautiful prospect and its allure can only be increased by the sense that indeed it might be the one which sees African football truly come of age.

If it happens we can in England at least put away the usual stale regrets about missed opportunities and inadequate leadership. Instead, we can celebrate the time we finally gave ourselves a decent chance – and then let the force of great football history take its course.