After the final round of qualifiers were completed across the African continent, there were major surprises, setbacks and comebacks that transpired. The biggest was when Herve Renard and the Atlas lions thrashed the Elephants of La Cote D’Ivoire by 2-0 in Abidjan to make it to Russia after almost 20 years of world cup drought. Meanwhile, the replayed match between the Teranga Lions of Senegal and South Africa saw Senegal qualifying for the first time since 2002 with a game to spare.
This campaign has seen majority of the countries representing Africa from the Northern side of the continent breaking the West African dominance with Nigerian being the only country from the 2014 campaign.
The Pharaoh’s of Egypt who have been through some sort of re-building process following a transition from the three time consecutive AFCON winning generation to the current generation. Having won the AFCON consecutively in 2006,2008 and 2010, the Aboutrika led generation failed to add a world cup berth to their success chalked on the continent. After 28 years it is a new generation who takes the North African side to the world cup in Russia next year. Egypt had suspended all football activities in the country for close to 2 years and so it was understandable if the country was fixed on building a new teanm. Hector Cuper has lead this and has been successful so far with the task given him. The argentine’s main objective was to qualify the team to the World cup, a tournament they last took part in 1990.
One of the major strength of the team during their campaign was their in-form striker, Mohammed Salah who was playing with Roma and scored 15 goals in the Serie A and carried his superb form into the national team having scored 5 goals during the qualifiers.
Egypt were drawn in group E against Ghana which was seen as a tough group for the Pharaoh’s but they managed to top the group and qualify with a game in hand. Hector Cuper and his charges won 4 of their games, drawing one and losing one game.
Another North African side to qualify is the Atlas Lions of Morocco. The team headed by Herve Renard is the only team to have qualified for the mundial next year without conceding a goal in the qualifiers. Not only do the Moroccans have the best defence of the qualifiers, but also a sharp attack who have found the back of the net 11 times in the campaign.
Though most of their players don’t play in the big teams in Europe, the success of this team depends mostly on their head coach, Herve Renard who has a great experience on the continent. He took the Zambian and the Ivorian team to win AFCON in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Herve Renard was hired in 2016 by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) and his main target was to qualify them for the 2017 AFCON and most importantly, qualify for the 2018 World Cup and he has been solid for the team since.
The North Africans will make their fifth appearance in the tournament after last qualifying in France 1998. They were the first African and Arab nation to have made it to the second round of the world cup in Mexico 1986.
The third North African country representing Africa is the Tunisian National team who have been missing in action on the world stage. The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia is being managed by Nabil Maaloul, a treble winning coach with Esperance de Tunis in 2011. Maaloul who was part of the Tunisian 2004 AFCON winning team as an assistant manager was back with the team 2013 as the manager but enjoyed a short stint that lasted only seven months. Nabil has successfully qualified the team to the world stage again since their last appearance in Germany 2006.
Youssef Msakni who plies his trade in Qatar is very decisive in the team and has been an inspiration for their campaign.
The Tunisians were drawn in group A with Congo DR, Libya and Guinea. The team ended their campaign with a draw against Libya to take them to Russia.
From the western part of the continent, the Super Eagles of Nigeria were the first to book their place in Russia here in Africa. The team which failed to qualify for the AFCON hired a new Coach in the person of Gernot Rohr who re-build the team. One thing that also helped the team was issues with winning bonus which they were able to deal with throughout their campaign. Rohr gave chances to some local players and proper scouting that got them defensive players like Leon Balogun and William Troost Ekong (they were dubbed the oyigbo combination) whom the German tactician has paired in most of his games which helped him perfectly.
The biggest name from the continent is the Teranga lions of Senegal due to lots of expectations from the team because of the player quality at their disposal. The Senegalese national team last appeared on the world stage in 2002 reaching the quarter finals. Head coach of the side, Aliou Cisse who was a former player and captain of the side that played in the 2002 World cup and helped them reach the quarter finals.
The team is headed by a coach who has been at the world stage before as a player and so has the experience to show to the players. The players are performing at the top in Europe playing day in day out. Talk of Sadio Mane who is doing great with Liverpool, Kalidou koulibally who is performing very well in the Italian Serie A with Napoli, Diafra Sakho at Westham, Keita Balde who plays as a forward for Monaco in the French Ligue 1.
Though Africa is far from a medal at the world stage, the Senegalese national team have quality to compete to get to a respectable stage at the world cup next year. After they dazzled in their last appearance and went out for a long time, the Teranga Lions are expected to perform better.
A lot of people are surprised the Ivorian national team failed to qualify for Russia because of their ‘quality’. Let’s not pretend not to know that the Ivoirians are not as good as people want it to seem. They don’t have enough quality as compared to the days of their golden generation where they had the likes of Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, the Toure brothers etc., the Ivoirians failed to plan for a transition and the Law of diminishing return makes us understand that, when you get to your peak and stay there for a while, there is always a tendency to decline which is clearly happening with the Elephants. For Marc Wilmots, whoever advised them to hire him as their head coach, has done them a great deal of disservice because he hasn’t been/never been good even with the type of quality at his disposal at Belgium, he performed poorly.
The Black stars of Ghana also missed out in next year’s World cup having represented in the last three editions. Similar with the Ivoirian situation, the Ghanaian national team failed to identify talent, no proper development at the youth level. A Ben Cofie 5 year development plan which helped fed the 2006 world cup squad with the key members of that team like Muntari, Paintsil, Razak Bimpong, Michael Essien, Steven Appiah and the likes. The U20 team that won the 2009 world cup (the likes of Adiyiah, Jonathan Mensah,Agyeman Badu, Daniel Agyei, Andrew Ayew) also transitioned into the 2010 world cup squad and some extent to the 2014 world cup squad. This has been clear indication that when the country focus on youth developments, they get results but have failed to develop the youth system.
When kwesi Appiah took over from Avram Grant, it almost looked impossible for him to qualify the team to the world cup hence the target for him to build a new team for the future. Under Avram Grant, he failed to bring competition into the team calling the same players over and over again though they were not producing good results.
Another factor that affected the team was the hung-over from Brazil 2014. The team had lost its spirit after that tournament because the love of the fans for the team had long gone.
Then there was the issue of misunderstanding between the GFA and the then Sports minister. There was a divided attention at the Ministry of Sports and the Football Association and these internal wrangling brought about divided attention which at a point cost the team. The stars finished their qualifiers without a single home win and finished third in group E behind Uganda who finished below Egypt.
Though history doesn’t look good on Northern Africa at the world stage, let’s hope for a decent participation since majority of the African representatives are from the north.
With less than 12 months to Russia 2018, preparations start right from today till the tournament kick starts after the draw is being held in December and nations get to know their opponents.
For teams like Ghana who will miss the mundial, Qatar 2022 is the target and they can only enjoy Russia 2018 as viewers and spectators but not participants.