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How will Africa’s teams fare in the 2022 World Cup?

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How will Africa’s teams fare in the 2022 World Cup?

Soccer fans around the world will turn their full attention to the small nation of Qatar in the Middle East as the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup kicks off on 20 November. Africa will be watching with great anticipation as its five representatives, Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia take to the field against the world’s strongest football powers. How will our teams fare? Analysis by Michael Renouf

Cameroon

The Indomitable Lions will be contesting their eighth finals in Qatar, the most for any African nation. To qualify they topped Group D after beating Côte d’Ivoire 1-0 in the group’s last game when anything but a victory would have meant their opponents progressing instead.

In the play-off round, they squeezed past Algeria on away goals. After losing the home leg 1-0 to the 2019 AFCON champions, they won the reverse fixture by the same score forcing extra-time. With two minutes of the extra 30 to play, Algeria scored and that appeared to be that. Yet deep into stoppage time, Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi struck, registering victory on the away goal to turn the emotions of two nations on their heads.

Cameroon hosted this year’s AFCON where they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Egypt. They finished in bronze medal position after coming back from the dead, trailing 3-0 with 20 minutes to play in the third-place play off.

Despite this, and the fact they were top scorers in the tourney with 14 goals in seven games, which included the tournament’s two most prolific marksmen, Vincent Aboubakar scoring eight times and Karl Toko Ekambi contributing five, manager Antonio Conceicao was soon shown the door by the Cameroon Football Federation president, Samuel Eto’o.

Eto’o’s former international team-mate and the nation’s most capped player Rigobert Song, whose limited coaching experience may well prove inadequate, replaces the Portuguese boss. Was this a bold positive move or a case of jobs for the boys? Only time will tell.

Cameroon’s forward Vincent Aboubakar (L) celebrates with Karl Toko Ekambi (C) and Clinton Njie (R) after scoring his team’s second goal during the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 round of 16 football match between Cameroon and Comoros at Stade d’Olembe in Yaounde on January 24, 2022. (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Cameroon first appeared at the 1982 WC finals where they played in a group containing eventual winners Italy, the team that claimed bronze, Poland, plus Peru. Five of the group’s six games ended with scorelines of 0-0, 0-0, 1-1, 0-0 and 1-1. Had it not been for Poland’s 5-1 victory over Peru, anybody looking back at Group 1 from those finals could be forgiven for thinking they were reading binary code. The upshot of those results meant Poland had four points while Italy and Cameroon had three apiece, both with a zero goal difference. As the European side had scored two goals and the Indomitable Lions one, it was the Azzurri who progressed.

Despite their impressive record in qualifying, Cameroon have only once ventured into the knockout rounds, at Italia ’90. They faced defending champions Argentina in the tournament opener, where they stunned not only Diego Maradona and his teammates but the watching global television audience with a 1-0 victory in an at-times brutal affair, on the way to topping the group.

As the finals progressed, they captured the imagination of the world in no small part due to Roger Milla’s goals and iconic celebrations, with movements reminiscent of those that had got Elvis Presley into so much trouble 30 years earlier! Their wonderful run was ended at the quarter-final stage where they were beaten 3-2 by England in extra-time. Although they appeared at the 2010 and 2014 finals, the last time they won a game at the World Cup was in 2002, when they defeated Saudi Arabia in Japan.

Cameroon are a physically strong side who know where the goal is. They are also particularly dangerous from set-pieces and have an incredible will to win; however, unless Song has something up his sleeve, yet another first-round exit looks probable, meaning that although they are a 200/1 betting  shot, the odds are still not tempting enough for most gamblers.

Ghana

Ghana won their qualifying group by the narrowest of margins. They finished level on 13 points with South Africa and as both sides had a plus- four goal difference, it went down to goals scored, where thanks to the Black Stars netting one more along the way they progressed to a play-off tie with Nigeria. Again, they triumphed by a slim margin, on away goals. 

This will be Ghana’s fourth finals, having twice reaching the knockout stages. At their first finals in 2006 they reached the last 16 before being beaten by Brazil 3-0. Four years later they made it all the way to the quarter-finals before Uruguay’s Luis Suarez’s handball in extra time prevented them from becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals. In a story that is known all over the globe, Asamoah Gyan hit the bar with the last kick of the game from the subsequent spot-kick, before the pressure of a penalty shoot-out proved too much for the last African nation left standing in the first World Cup contested on African soil. 

2014 saw Ghana head to their third consecutive tournament, where despite holding eventual champions Germany to a 2-2 draw in a pulsating encounter, they exited the finals due to a 2-1 defeat to their opening opponents this time around, Portugal – who they face on 24 November. 

Four days later they face South Korea; this is their most likely route to three points and may well be vital if they want to go into their last group encounter with the nation of the ‘villainous’ Suarez (Uruguay) on 2 December with anything to play for.

Ghana have captured the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title four times, but have not won since 1982 and this year’s tournament was an abysmal failure for the Black Stars, finishing bottom of their section and losing their last game to Comoros, when a draw with the tiny island nation would have seen them through to the knockout stages, albeit as only one of the best third-placed sides. 

NA verdict: Captain André Ayew may become the nation’s most capped player at the finals, but that may well be their highlight. Odds of 250/1 seem on the mark.

Ghana’s Jordan Ayew (3rd R) fights for the ball with Nigeria’s Frank Onyeka (2nd R) during the World Cup 2022 qualifying football match between Nigeria and Ghana at the National Stadium in Abuja on March 29, 2022. (Photo by Pius Utomi EKPEI / AFP)

Morocco

One of Africa’s most frequent representatives at the finals. Although they have a similar record to Tunisia (16 games contested, only won twice, drawn five times and been defeated in the other nine matches), they have also created a little history.

In 1970 they became the first African side to participate in a group stage. The only previous African qualifier had been Egypt back in 1934, when the tournament was played as a straight knockout competition for the one and only time. During their first sojourn to the finals, Morocco also managed the continent’s first point in a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria. 16 years later Mexico became the first nation to host the finals twice and Morocco not only returned for the first time since the tournament was played in the land of tacos, tequila and tamales, but they won their group, another first for an African side.

In the last 16, they faced World Cup powerhouse West Germany and the Atlas Lions (Morocco) were only beaten by an 88th Lothar Matthäus strike as his side progressed along their path to the final. That, however, is the only time their fans have had to extend their hotel bookings to watch their side in the knockout stages, as in the three finals they have appeared at since (1994, 1998 and 2018), they have departed at the group stages.

Morocco had an exemplary qualifying campaign, winning their section with ease, posting a perfect record of six wins from six games, scoring 20 goals and conceding only one. They were also the most comprehensive winners in the play-off round, defeating DR Congo 5-2 on aggregate – although it should be noted their opponents were the lowest-ranked side left. They have only been victorious once in AFCON, when they took the title in 1976. This year they won their group before being sent home after extra-time at the quarter-final stage thanks to the brilliance of Egypt’s Mo Salah in an extremely tight encounter.

They start their World Cup campaign with a tricky tie against 2018 finalists Croatia, before locking horns with Belgium in what could be the last chance for the European side’s ‘golden generation’ to win silverware on the international stage – then the Moroccans face Canada.

The Atlas Lions will be looking for strikers Ayoub El Kaabi and Ryan Mmaee to continue their qualifying form; the attackers struck nine goals between them. Although, their most vital player could be Achraf Hakimi, the attack-minded full-back, who despite being 23 until shortly before the tournament starts, has already played for Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and PSG.

NA verdict: Their opening match on 23 November with Croatia is vital, they must gain at least a point if they hope to progress. The Croatian side is not as strong as four years ago so it is possible. However, lose that game and odds of 250/1 seem about right. If they do make it through, they will face a side from group E which contains Spain, Germany and Japan, so that could well be the end of the road…but in football, anything can happen.

Senegal 

The West African nation is competing in only its third ever finals and at both its previous tournaments has hit the footballing headlines.

Senegal’s initial appearance was at the 2002 edition held in Japan and South Korea – the first time the World Cup had joint hosts. They had the honour of playing defending champions France in the tournament’s first game.

Despite the fact that the French were without their talisman, Zinedine Zidane, they were expected to easily brush aside the debutants. Thirty minutes in and Papa Bouba Diop scored the game’s only goal to give Senegal a famous victory. Unfortunately, Diop will not be around to witness his countrymen’s efforts this time around; he passed away in late 2020 from ALS, otherwise known as motor neuron disease.

After drawing with Denmark, Senegal went into their final match with Uruguay knowing a draw would seal their place in the last 16. At the break they held a healthy 3-0 lead before starting to capitulate quicker than a vegan leaving a meat-only BBQ, in a bad-tempered affair. With just two minutes remaining of the 90, Uruguay made the score 3-3. The South American side needed one more goal to progress instead of their African counterparts, but it never came, meaning Senegal faced Sweden for a place in the last eight.  

The game headed into extra-time. Henri Camara scored his second goal of the tie in the 104th minute – a strike that sent Senegal through and brought an immediate conclusion to the game. This was the era of the ‘golden goal’, the rule that meant that as soon as a side scored in extra-time the game was done and dusted. 

The aim behind this controversial and much derided rule was to encourage attacking football. In a reaction that surprised nobody except for the game’s rule-makers, it had exactly the opposite effect with teams too afraid to attack. 

In the quarter-finals, it was a case of live by the sword, die by the sword when after a goalless 90 minutes another ‘golden goal’ decided the tie, but this time in favour of opponents Turkey. Ilhan Mansiz’s strike was the last ever ‘golden goal’ seen on this stage as thankfully this edict was scrapped after the tournament, leaving the Lions of Teranga (Senegal) with a peculiar record. They had played in exactly half of the games settled in this manner at World Cup finals.

Sixteen years later, they returned to the finals in Russia. This time they were in a group with Japan, Poland and Colombia, who they faced in their final game, when if they had won, they would have topped their section. Instead, a 1-0 defeat meant they ended with four points, and four goals scored and conceded, an identical record to the Japanese. 

As the sides had played out a draw it went down to ‘fair play’ points (those awarded against the side for yellow and red cards) for the first time in the history of the World Cup. Senegal had been slightly naughtier than the Blue Samurai (Japan) so were sent home in the cruellest of fashions.

This time around they face Holland on the opening day of the tournament (21 November) before facing the hosts Qatar four days later and finishing off with a tie against Ecuador.

Boss Aliou Cissé has been in place since 2015 and as well as taking the team to Russia in 2018, has led them to two successive AFCON finals. In 2019 they lost 1-0 to Algeria and like all good teams, learned from that experience, capturing their first-ever African title this year, defeating Egypt on penalties, after a 0-0 draw. 

Coincidentally, the only other time they reached the AFCON final in 2002, Cissé was their captain as they lost on penalties after a scoreless game. 

During the WC play-offs, they were once again paired with the Pharaohs and after each side claimed a 1-0 victory, they proved to be the superior side from 12 yards out for a second time. The only negative to this result is that the world will be robbed of watching Mo Salah in action.

Senegal is far and away the strongest African nation travelling to Qatar. Providing they can avoid the slow start they made to this year’s AFCON – two 0-0 draws in the group stage – a squad that contains the likes of Sadio Mané, Edouard Mendy, Famara Diédhiou, Ismaïla Sarr and Kalidou Koulibaly, ought to progress from their group, possibly as section winners. 

If they do that, they will face the runners-up from England’s group, Group B which, the Three Lions apart, is a weak one, meaning Senegal could have an eminently winnable tie which in turn would secure a quarter-final berth and if they progress that far, confidence will be flying high and anything is possible. 

NA verdict: The 90/1 odds on offer seem very generous for Aliou Cissé’s men, who could well be around in the latter stages of the tournament. If you are looking for this year’s proverbial dark horses, you could do worse than saddle up with Senegal.

Tunisia

Qatar will be the Eagles of Carthage’s sixth finals and their fifth appearance in the last seven editions. Of the 15 games they have played at FIFA’s top table, they won their first-ever game in 1978 – which was also the first victory for any African nation at the finals – and their last in 2018, coming from behind in games against Mexico and Panama, respectively. However, they have won none of their other 13 ties, drawing four and losing nine. At the Argentinian finals in 1978, they also held reigning world champions Germany to a goalless draw.

This time around they qualified by beating Mali 1-0 on aggregate. The decisive strike came in the 36th minute of the  first leg, with an own goal from Moussa Sissako, who four minutes later managed to tie his name forever to the phrase ‘A bad day at the office’ when he received a straight red card.

Tunisia, who scrambled through to the knockout rounds of this year’s AFCON finals as a third-placed team and who have only ever won that tournament once – when they beat their Maghrebian rivals Morocco in the final on home soil in 2004 – have a hard task ahead of them. They will first tackle last year’s European semi-finalists, Denmark, on 22 November and finish off against former colonial masters and world champions France, eight days later. In between they face the winners of the Asian Football Confederation versus CONMEBOL (South American federation) play-off.

Football, like the rest of the world, has been affected by Covid so some qualifying campaigns are still undecided, meaning that Australia, the UAE and Peru are all still in contention to be the final team in group D. For Tunisia, a lot of hopes will rest on the shoulders of Whabi Khazri, who is the second-highest scorer in Tunisian history, behind Issam Jemaa.

NA verdict: Tunisia have never gone beyond the group stages and one would expect that dismal record to continue. Odds of 200/1 are too short.

Note: All odds supplied by Skybet

Michael Renouf’s new book, My Incredible World Cup Journey –Around the Globe from Argentina to Brazil, will be published in November this year through Fair Play Publishing. You can contact him personally and see more of his work at his website michaelrenouf.com.

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Written by Michael Renouf

Michael is a freelance journalist and photographer specialising in sports, film and travel.

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