John Andah is a sports journalist and Senior Assistant Editor with Concise News Global.
A wave of optimism is travelling through the minds of many Nigerians that the Super Eagles and other Russia 2018-bound African teams would make a bold statement at the Mount Everest of football, the FIFA World Cup.
Thirty-two countries, including five from the continent, would vie for the trophy from June 14 to July 15.
And head coach of the Eagles Gernot Rohr believes the three-time African champions are equipped with a mix of youthful and experienced players that can stun the world in Vladimir Putin’s country.
Nigeria will compete alongside two-time world champions Argentina; Croatia, who finished third at the 1998 tournament; and debutants Iceland in Group D.
“This is a difficult group, but I think we can spring a surprise,” Rohr had said after the draw.
However, history shows that no team from the continent has progressed beyond the quarter-finals since 1990. That’s 28 years ago.
Prior to Italia ’90, African teams could not advance beyond the second round.
Cameroon did at the aforementioned tournament and the world’s attention focused on the continent as the Indomitable Lions defeated the world champions at the time, Argentina, and narrowly lost to England in the quarter-finals.
Cameroon’s heroics remain one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history. It left scores of Africans in euphoria.
Hopes were, therefore, rife that teams from the continent could go a step further at the USA ’94 tournament. But Nigeria could not replicate the feat of their central-African neigbours as they narrowly lost to eventual finalists Italy in the second round.
It is, however, worthy to note that the Super Eagles were Africa’s best representatives at two successive World Cups; as they were the only team from the continent to reach the second round in USA ’94 and France ’98.
After experiencing drawbacks at the last two editions, Senegal made Africans smile again by equaling Cameroon’s quarter-final record at the 2002 tournament in Korea and Japan.
Inspired by Khalilou Fadiga, El Hadji Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop, the Lions of Teranga produced a sterling performance to beat defending champions France in the opening match.
Their giant-killing run took them all the way to the quarter-finals where they narrowly lost in extra time to another tournament surprise-package Turkey.
Then came the 2010 tournament in South Africa, where the Black Stars of Ghana all but reached the semis. The Ghanaians were seconds away from becoming the first African country to finally progress beyond the quarter-finals, but for Asamoah Gyan’s penalty that skimmed the crossbar. The South Americans then ended the hopes of Africa by winning a truly extraordinary match 4-2 on penalties.
Despite their heartbreaking elimination, Africans celebrated Ghana for their spirited showing.
In Brazil 2014, aside Nigeria and Algeria, who recorded a win and draw to reach the Round of 16 after finishing second in their respective groups, the remaining three African representatives were eliminated in the group stage. Like in South Africa, seven-time representatives Cameroon lost all their matches, conceding nine goals and scoring just one in the process of a dismal outing.
It was dejavu for Cote d’Ivoire as they failed to progress beyond the group stages in their third straight appearance at the mundial.
As for Ghana, who were seconds away from breaking the semi-final jinx in 2010, they begun their campaign on a rough note; conceding the tournament’s fastest goal and a stoppage-time goal to lose 2-1 to the United States.
But the Black Stars produced a strong showing against the eventual winners, Germany, with a two-all draw.
Overall, the continent presented five representatives, played 17 matches, won only two, lost 11 and shared the spoils on two occasions.
So, why have African teams failed to reach the last four at the FIFA World Cup?
There are different lines of thought that may be responsible for this. One is the recurring decimal of rift between players and football administrators over non-payment of appearance fees and bonuses.
Former World and European Player of the Year Liberia’s George Weah had blamed leaders of African football federations for the continent’s woes.
“Former players govern European football while those without passion or knowledge of the game rule in Africa. Footballers rather than officials should travel business class on flights because they are the ones going to play,” Weah said in an interview with the UK Guardian before the last tournament.
Weah’s assertion was given credence in Brazil as Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria had issues with their players over appearance fees and bonuses during the tournament.
Ghanian players boycotted training in protest at not receiving their allowances, the country’s government flew $3m (£1.8m) in cash to Brazil to salvage the row.
In a similar vein, Nigerian players refused to train ahead of their Round of 16 showdown with France over fears they would not receive bonus payments from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). The country’s President at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, had to step in.
There was a related issue with Cameroon, whose players refused to board their plane to South America because of a row over appearance fees. They arrived a day later than scheduled. Wait a minute, a flip through history shows the issue is not new.
Togo went on strike over bonus money at 2006 tournament in Germany and the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) was forced to intervene.
The football governing body had to step in again eight years later. The other line of thought is what some pundits perceive to be African players’ lack of commitment when in their countries’ colours.
Former England international John Barnes, who featured in Mexico ’86 and Italia ’90 finals, told Supersport that Africans must show the same desire and discipline when playing for their country as they do when playing for European clubs.
However, former Nigerian captain and coach, who featured in USA ’94 and France ’98 finals, Sunday Oliseh takes a rather different stand.
He believes the row over bonuses was not enough to judge the players’ non-commitment to their national team.
“We have the quality. But what we need is a solution so that everyone is satisfied before the tournament starts. It’s going to be better for everyone if we don’t have to talk about off the pitch issues. Personally I find it very painful,” he had said after the tournament in Brazil.
To this end, the NFF has penned an agreement with Nigerian players over earnings during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“We have done it; we have concluded negotiations and come to an agreement with the team with regards to bonuses, allowances and share of income from FIFA for the 2018 World Cup,” said NFF vice-president Shehu Dikko.
Captain of the side, Mikel Obi, said it was the first time such an agreement was reached.
“We also agreed on preparation, such as how much players will be paid for the friendly matches, including how and when the monies would be paid. We are very happy and excited with this development,” Mikel said in November.
With this development, it is hoped the country’s football authorities and the players would carry out their duties in Russia without rancor as the need to reach a new height at the World Cup, after 28 years, cannot be overemphasised.