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What are Africa's World Cup chances?

Aarni Kuoppamäki ck
December 6, 2017

No African soccer team has ever reached the World Cup semi-finals. For the 2018 tournament in Russia, five strong teams could change that. But it's not going to be an easy feat.

Russland Moskau Fußball WM Trophäe
Image: picture-alliance/GES-Sportphoto/A. Golovanov

Ghana almost made it in 2010 in South Africa. The West African country was close to fulfilling the dream of Africans to finally advance to World Cup semi-finals. The game had already entered extra time when Ghana's Stephen Appiah kicked the ball towards Uruguay's goal. Luis Suarez blocked it at the goal line, but Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball towards the goal.

The ball was not caught by Uruguay's goalkeeper but by Suarez, who used his hands to stop the ball. Suarez was subsequently given a red card; Ghana's Asamoah Gyan failed to score penalty. The following penalty shootout was then won by Uruguay, thus ending Ghana's chances to reach semi-finals.

Two other African teams have so far reached quarter-finals: Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002. Both lost during extra time.

Hopes are high for 2018: Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia all qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Nigeria's Super Eagles

It's the sixth time Nigeria is participating in the tournament, which makes the Super Eagles a regular World Cup player, only missing out on one tournament since 1994.

While drawing a difficult qualifying group, the Super Eagles around captain John Obi Mikel (30) and midfielder Victor Moses (26) were able to defeat Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria.

But due to poor performance in preceding years, Nigeria - which is ranked number 50 on the list of international teams - was placed in a weaker pot at the draw held in Russia, and ended up in a group with Croatia, Island and Argentina.

Nigeria's Brian Idowu (l.) und Alex Iwobi celebrate their win against Argentina at a test run in November 2017 (photo: picture alliance/dpa /AP/S. Pivovarov)
Nigeria's Brian Idowu (l.) und Alex Iwobi celebrate their win against Argentina in a friendly match in November 2017Image: picture alliance/dpa /AP/S. Pivovarov

Nigeria has played against Argentina four times during previous World Cups, and lost every single game. German trainer Gernot Rohr has said he aims to at least "give a good performance and show high morale."

But a 4:2 victory in a friendly match against Argentina in November has left the Super Eagles longing for more.

Morocco's Atlas Lions

Morocco will be participating in a World Cup for the fifth time; however, its last tournament was in 1998.

In the last qualifying round, the Atlas Lions led by captain Mehdi Benatia (30) won every match without conceding a goal, to the chagrin of Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. The man behind these brilliant tactics was French trainer Herve Renard, who has won the Africa Cup twice: with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015.

Morocco was seeded with Spain, European Championship winner Portugal and Iran in the World Cup draw for 2018.

Morocco's team players celebrate a goal at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium in Abidjan on November 11, 2017,
Morocco's team players celebrate a goal against Ivory Coast during the qualifying match against Ivory CoastImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Volker Finke, a former trainer of the German Bundesliga, told DW that Morocco was "well organized." Finke, who used to train Cameroon until 2015, has faced Renard's Ivory Coast three times.

He said Morocco was capable of "annoying the two powerhouses" Spain and Portugal in the tournament, but expects them to advance to the next round.

"In the end quality will win the day. And that quality is overpowering, no matter how well you organize the defense," he said.

Egypt's Pharaohs

Egypt is the most successful national team on the African continent, having won the Africa Cup of Nations multiple times. It's the third time for the North African country to participate in the World Cup; the last time Egypt played in 1990.

The Pharaohs beat Uganda, Ghana and the Republic of Congo to qualify for Russia. They only scored eight goals in six games. Trainer Hector Cuper from Argentina has been heavily criticized for his defensive game, but was vindicated by success: his team won 20 out of 30 games.

Essam El Hadary of Egypt celebrates after winning the World Cup qualification match between Egypt and Congo (photo: Imago/Xinhua)
Essam El Hadary of Egypt celebrates after winning the World Cup qualification match between Egypt and CongoImage: Imago/Xinhua

And compared to other African teams, the Pharaohs drew a less difficult lot, having been seeded with host Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.

"In view of their opponents, the team has the best starting position," Finke told DW. "Good technique, physically powerful, confident," he added.

The team's star is Mohamed Salah (25), who plays for FC Liverpool. If he manages to score a goal, the Pharaohs might make it to the second round for the first time ever.

Tunisia's Carthage Eagles

Tunisia too has not yet been able to survive the groups' stage, in spite of participating in five World Cups. The Carthage Eagles qualified without losing a single game. But their opponents - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea - were not the strongest competition. Defeating Belgium, England and Panama will be more difficult.

"The key to reaching the second stage is the match against England," trainer Nabil Maaloul said. The Tunisian has recruited most of his players from the national league, contrary to other African teams.

Fußball WM Playoffs | Tunesien vs. Libyen
Tunisia managed to qualify for the World Cup after a goalless draw with LibyaImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Belaid

Betting agencies consider Tunisia to be among the biggest outsiders of the tournament. They put the odds of the Carthage Eagles winning the World Cup at between 1:500 and 1:751.

The team is still adding players to its roster. The Tunisian football association recently invited Rani Khedira (23), the younger brother of German national player Sami Khedira (30) to join the Eagles in Russia.

Senegal's Lions of Teranga

Senegal ranks 23 on the FIFA world ranking, making it the highest ranked of all African teams. Bookmakers are offering bettors on Senegal odds between 1:126 and 1:151.

This is only the second time for Senegal to play in a World Cup. In 2002, during the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Aliou Cisse led the team as captain. Today he serves as their trainer.

Senegalese players celebrating (photo: Reuters/S. Sibeko)
Senegal celebrates its win over South Africa Image: Reuters/S. Sibeko

The Lions qualified by defeating South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde.

The draw placed them in a balanced group, together with Poland, Columbia and Japan. The team around star player Sadio Mane (25), also from Liverpool, has a good chance of reaching the next stage - the round of 16. 

The usual African problems?

Volker Finke does not believe an African team will "make it very far" in the 2018 World Cup. It has less to do with sports and more with organization, infrastructure and lack of transparency, he said. After having qualified for a championship, associations would start fighting over big budgets, he told DW.

Suddenly, the doors in the team's hotel are locked, because the bills have not been paid; the team's bus won't come to pick up players, because there is allegedly no money for fuel; or the flight will be delayed, because rewards for players are still being negotiated.

Volker Finke (right) and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Finke (right) trained Cameroon's national team for the World Cup 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

That's why teams of the north are usually stronger, Finke said. "Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast clearly have better players than the North Africans. But the North Africans are more organized and structured, for instance when it comes to work within the associations or organizing training camps," he said.

The job of the trainer was different in Africa, where football associations have protégés among the players, he added. When working in Cameroon, Finke said he was "50 percent diplomat and 50 percent trainer."

In order to be successful, it's "important to have a team that acts as a team. And you need the support of the football association, when you decide to not invite certain players," Finke told DW.