If four out of five South American teams are through to the round of 16 while zero out of the same number of African teams are there, we have a problem.
As I write this, Senegal, the last African country standing, has just been tossed out of the tournament by Colombia.
Not even fair play could save them; Japan beat them to that. (When teams contesting a place in the second round are tied on points and goal difference, Fifa counts the number of yellow and red cards each has incurred and awards the slot to the one that has attracted the least.)
Before departing for Russia, John Obi Mikel, captain of Nigeria’s Super Eagles promised President Muhammadu Buhari that Nigeria would win the World Cup.
He did that with a straight face and there was no hint that he was joking. Well, the politician in Buhari just got a taste of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a false promise.
Nigeria fell to Argentina when the South Americans had their backs to the wall. Crestfallen fans of the Super Eagles, not just in Nigeria but around Africa, consoled themselves with thoughts of the team’s future; with an average age of 25, Nigeria had the youngest team of the 32 finalists.
But it seems as if it was Senegal’s exit that gutted them most – and perhaps not least because it was the continent’s last hope.
Going out on technicality was always going to be hard, but rules are rules and they apply to all across the board. Senegal were brave and enterprising.
They had physically very strong players, they were well organised and they had a coach who was at home with the big stage; Aliou Cisse had captained them to the quarter finals in 2002.
Of the five African campaigners, they took with them the least expectations and it showed in the fluency of their play.
For sure, if any African team deserved to be still in contention, the Lions of Teranga did. But the game with Colombia also exposed their soft underbelly. They needed just a point, meaning a draw, to go through.
As we now already know, the carefree football that South America and particularly Brazil gave to the world has been supplanted by the European game.
African football has a cultural kinship to the South American game. Boys in the slums of Mathare, left to themselves, will indulge themselves with improvised balls and goal posts in much the same way as boys in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. They are artists by natural instinct.
But it is the football that Italy and Germany gave us that reigns supreme today – the football of results. Even Brazil plays this kind of game and the days of Pele, Tostao, Rivelino, Jairzinho and company are distant memory.
No matter how well you play, it is the results that matter. For purists, this is infinitely regrettable but it is an established fact.
Distasteful as it is to say it, Senegal should simply have shut up shop, Italy style, and frustrated Colombia to get their point.
Was it Cesar Luis Menotti, coach of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning team who coined the phrase “anti-football?” Indeed, anti-football exists, it was started by Italy and it works.
What happens is that you let the other team do the playing and patiently wait for them to make a mistake, mainly coming out of desperation. And then you strike in a clinical counter attack.
Once you get the result you wanted, you grind the game down. To play against an Italian team at its best is to bang your head against a granite wall. It isn’t pretty and it is worst for spectators. But Italy have won the World Cup four times.
They may not be in Russia this time but be sure they will return with a vengeance.
After the Senegal-Colombia game, I listened as some commentators regretted the Lions’ exit and ruefully observed that Senegal should have “played dirty” because that is what it would have taken to get that all-important point. They were talking about anti-football and being themselves former international footballers who had played the game at the highest levels, they knew what they were saying.
But this is now so much water under the bridge.
Across Africa, the question seems now to have subtly shifted from when an African team will win the World Cup to whether that is possible. The facts and figures are grim.
When Tunisia became the first team from Africa to win a World Cup match in 1978, the event was notable in its achievement. Unfortunately, we have not moved very far from that; winning a match at the World Cup is still a big deal for African teams regardless of who the opponent is.
Cameroon were the first African team to reach the quarter finals in 1990. The bar froze there. In other words, this is to say that African teams have not improved on this performance in the last 28 years.
Imagine waiting 32 years – that is when the next World Cup comes around in 2022 – to improve on a 1990 performance? What will Africa do that it has not already tried?
Five slots at the World Cup is a big number to have. But they are set to increase to nine when the 2026 World Cup is held in North America. During those finals, the number of participating countries will increase from the present 32 to 48. This expands the chances of countries like Kenya which have never qualified for the finals of the tournament.
ALL FOR THE MONEY
But what value will more teams add when the crème de la crème of the continent heads for the airport before the competition seriously begins?
By increasing the number of participants, Fifa will boost its coffers.
More than 3.2 billion people – 1.2 billion for the final alone – watched its 2014 World Cup. This number is expected to exceed 3.4 billion when the Russia tournament comes to an end. Projections for 2026 are mind-boggling.
Football for all is the altruistic reason for Fifa’s global outreach while money is the real one.
The constant failure of African teams, therefore, is only a problem for their people – not Fifa’s. Fifa is achieving its objectives while African countries are not. Maybe it is time to re-evaluate those objectives.
Must winning the World Cup remain an African objective? Just participating could suffice. The Olympic credo says that the most important thing is not to win but to take part. Maybe African countries could adopt this for their World Cup ambitions.
If winning, however, remains the objective, then they may need to make new drawing boards and throw away the old ones to which they always return for bad sketches failure after failure.
When Brazil were thrashed 7-1 by Germany in one of the 2014 semi-finals, they were dazed and couldn’t see straight. This was perfectly understandable.
But they recovered and sent new coach Tite on a long European sojourn to study their strongest rivals.
They worked like aircraft accident investigators who hold that it is too late to prevent the disaster that has just occurred and it is no use looking for someone to blame.
The only important thing left it is to understand what has happened so as to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Out of the ashes of the 2014 devastation, a new team with a new ethos has come into being and now remains the favourite to win.
After a disaster so terrible this is a massive turn-around in a short time, whatever the outcome of their coming matches.
There are some things that come in the wake of African failure that must be done away with forever. The most critical one is scapegoating.
I have been taken aback by impassioned views that Fifa (read white people) are biased against Africans and that they conspire to ensure our defeats.
If you think like this, forget ever winning. What are the mechanics of fixing a football match? Only two people in a field of 22 players have capacity to wilfully change the outcome of a match wrongly – a referee and a goalkeeper.
A referee can give or deny enough penalties to win a match while a goalkeeper can let in goals that he could otherwise save. Does anybody seriously believe Fifa engineered any of this in Russia?
The latest punching bag for Africans looking for excuses to explain away failure is the video assistant referee (VAR). It is blamed for some unpalatable calls.
This is despite knowledge that it is the referee and not his assistant who makes the decisions. Even when he consults his video assistant, the decision is still his.
The footage leads him to either reaffirm his original decision or change it but either way, it is his to make.
Can it be any better than this? If it were not, Spain would be out of the World Cup, Mohamed Salah would have been denied his penalty against Russia and South Korea’s first goal against Germany would have been disallowed with the possible implication that the 2014 world champions would still be in the competition. These are just three instances among a plethora of them.
The rules of the game stipulate that the referee is the sole decision maker in a game and that his decision is final.
I think that it is only fair that a person so powerful and who is human after all, gets the opportunity to change his mind before his billions of spectators.
The main argument against the death penalty is that there is no opportunity to correct an error should one have occurred. Well, many football teams were hanged before VAR, so to speak.
If Africans don’t stop scapegoating and look deep within themselves for their own shortcomings, future defeats are assured.