There has been an unmistakable glass ceiling over Africa at football World Cups.
In reaching the quarter-finals in the 1990 World Cup, Cameroon set a benchmark that has not been bettered yet. Senegal and Ghana also reached the last-eight, in 2002 and 2010 respectively, but the continent’s tale of the tape on the global stage has been one of relative underachievement.
Powered by Roger Milla’s swivelling hips and a fearless athleticism, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions were the shining light of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Wins over holders Argentina, Romania and Colombia set the bar high and, for the first time, an African side claimed three wins at a World Cup.
That performance was widely expected to herald a new age of achievement. It also seemed to justify Pele’s assertion that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000.
However, that prediction would ultimately fall short.
But in 2002, Senegal staked claims for the big prize. Amid a hail of falling seeds early on, the team set out its stall by beating reigning champions France and becoming the first African team to go through a World Cup group stage undefeated.
They were ultimately undone by fatigue and a golden goal, but that success launched the mainstream appeal of Senegalese football.
In 2010, Ghana were the only one of six representatives to advance from the group stage in South Africa.
The Black Stars, combining the experience of their debut in 2006 with the promise of their 2009 under-20 World Cup winning team, played organised, disciplined football and, after wins over Serbia and the USA, came within a handball of a place in the semi-finals.
So, has all that promise and hope disappeared?
The inability of African teams to cross this rubicon is connected to the continent’s economic disadvantages relative to Europe and South America.
According to the World Population Review, going by gross national income per capita (as of 2020), nine of the 10 poorest countries in the world are in Africa.
This creates a snowball effect that affects the continent’s potential, restricting development, enabling corruption and impeding professionalism.
Africa’s World Cup outings have been littered with scandal, mostly about unpaid wages, that has led to opprobrium and derailed focus.
“The politics is too closely involved in the football,” former DR Congo international Gabriel Zakuani told Al Jazeera.
“With African countries, it plays such a big part, especially for the local players who depend on those bonuses. If that doesn’t happen, the focus shifts away from football. So that’s something that should be taken care of before you get to the World Cup or a major tournament.”
Another big talking point is the limited number of slots given to Africa for the World Cup.
For a continent comprising 54 member nations, it only gets five slots, and that, too, only since 1998.
In comparison, Europe, with 55 eligible nations, gets 13, and South America, with only 10 nations, gets between four and five.
From a purely probabilistic standpoint, this severely reduces Africa’s odds of making an impression. It also means Africa’s World Cup qualification is one of the most difficult to negotiate.
In the late 2000s, Egypt bizarrely failed to make the 2006 and 2010 editions, despite winning three straight Africa Cups of Nations and defeating Italy at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
This year, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, both multiple African champions, will miss out in addition to Egypt and Algeria.
Following his side’s elimination from the reckoning, South Africa coach Hugo Broos voiced a popular sentiment on the continent: “It is not fair, it is easier for good teams in Europe to qualify for the World Cup than [good teams] in Africa.” Broos told SA newspaper The Citizen.
Cameroon, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia and Ghana will represent Africa at Qatar World Cup.
All five have appeared at football’s biggest event previously. Cameroon, Morocco and Senegal made it to the last-eight of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.
Tournament experience will not be in short supply, and neither will star power.
Reigning African champions Senegal boast Sadio Mane, Cameroon’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has been one of the best midfielders in the Italian top-flight, Ghana’s diaspora recruitment drive will see them line up the likes of Inaki Williams and Tariq Lamptey in addition to Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus and Arsenal’s Thomas Partey, and Morocco’s wing-back Achraf Hakimi is one of the best players in the world in his position.
According to 1994 African Footballer of the Year Emmanuel Amuneke, Senegal and Morocco represent the continent’s best chance of success in the Middle East.
“The five teams have been tested enough in recent friendlies and they know they must first come out of the group before thinking of a semi-final ticket,” Amuneke said. “One step at a time will do. The tournament in Qatar is a great opportunity for African teams to fix what happened in Russia when no team progressed into the second round.”
His optimism is shared by Zakuani, who was even more bullish on Senegal’s prospects.
“I think there’s always a wildcard at the World Cups,” Zakuani said. “I fancy Senegal to get to the semi-finals. A lot of people may look at me like I’m crazy but for me, Senegal are the team that can shock everyone this time around.
“The five African teams will definitely be out there to compete. I don’t think they’ll be there to make up the numbers. There’s a lot of promise and talent.”
It helps that Senegal have the most forgiving draw, having been drawn with hosts Qatar, Ecuador and the Netherlands in Group A.
Morocco, Cameroon, Tunisia and Ghana all have daunting groups to navigate through, with Belgium, Brazil, holders France and Portugal the top seeds in their respective groups.
The challenge before Africa’s representatives has never been tougher. If they are to break that glass ceiling, they will certainly have to earn it.