The Underdogs
The Underdogs

Can underdogs break the dominance of South Americans and Europeans

While watching Africa’s young talents during the World Under-17 championship at Glasgow, Scotland, in 1989, Pelé made a bold prediction. “I have a dream that soon, and very soon, an African country will win the FIFA World Cup tournament,” he said, suggesting the feat would occur before the year 2000. He was not shooting in the dark. Africa had showed, and continue to show, prowess in junior football. Nigeria have won four Under-16/17 World Cups, Ghana two, plus an Under-20 World Cup. Nigeria have also clinched an Olympic gold, in 1996, and Cameroon did the same in 2000. Yet, this potential has not quite translated into success for Africa on the big stage. Asian countries may not have won accolades at the junior levels, but Japan and South Korea have impressed with their consistent performances in World Cups since 2002. Asia has become one of the biggest markets for football, which has increased the expectations fans have of their sides.


While some African and Asian sides have scripted romantic tales, only one has reached a semi-final so far, and none has really threatened to win the title. But, Africa and Asia have come a long way since they first entered the World Cup. In the early editions, they were whipping boys. Hungary routed Egypt 4-2 in 1934 and Dutch East Indies 6-0 in 1938, while Korea Republic conceded 16 goals in two games on their, and Asia’s, World Cup debut, in 1954. Zaire conceded 14 goals in their group in 1974.


The earliest indication that the minnows could humble the mighty came in England 1966, when unfancied North Korea shocked two-time world champions Italy 1-0 in the group stage and qualified for the quarter-finals. They then led Portugal 3-0 after 25 minutes before being overwhelmed by a four goal blitz by Eusébio. There have been a few Asian encores thereafter. Saudi Arabia, powered by Majed Abdullah, the ‘Pelé of Arabia’, advanced to the round of 16 at USA 1994 after taking the lead against the Netherlands in a 1-2 defeat, and beating Morocco (2-1) and Belgium (1-0) in their group fixtures.


In 2002, the World Cup was played in Japan and Korea, the first time it was being played outside Europe or America, which was seen as symbolic of football going global. Japan stormed into the second round after topping their group, while South Korea went on a remarkable run to reach the semi-finals, beating Portugal, Italy and Spain along the way. At South Africa 2010, both Korea and Japan again advanced to the round of 16 before they were knocked out.


Tunisia became the first African team to win a World Cup match when they beat Mexico 3-1 in 1978. In 1986, Morocco topped their pool, finishing ahead of England, Portugal and Poland, before being eliminated by West Germany 1-0 in the second round. But, it was in 1990 when an African nation first captured the imagination of the football world. The sensational, 38-year-old Roger Milla led Cameroon on a rampage in Italy. They beat reigning world champions Argentina, and Romania and Columbia to become the first African country to reach a World Cup quarter-final. In the quarter-final, Cameroon gave England a real scare, taking a 2-1 lead in the 65th minute. It took a late equaliser from Gary Linekar and an extra-time penalty to end their dream. “One of my great souvenirs is that we led England six minutes from the end of the game,” Milla, who set up both Cameroon’s goals in the quarter-finals, said later.


Since then, African sides have often been the neutral’s favourites at World Cups. At each edition, fans looks forward to one playing fearless football and causing a few upsets. In 1994 and 1998, it was Nigeria that entertained while reaching the second round, with players such as Viktor Ikpeba, Jay-Jay Okocha and the wonderfully-named Sunday Oliseh shining. Then, in 2002, Senegal caused one of the biggest World Cup shocks. In the opening game of the tournament, they beat the defending World Cup and European champions, France, 1-0. Two goals from Henri Camara took them past Sweden in the second round and it was an extra-time goal that saw them lose their quarter-final against Turkey.


In 2010, the World Cup went to Africa for the first time, with South Africa selected as hosts for the tournament. The spotlight was on all the African teams, of which there were six, more than in any previous World Cup. But, only one made it out of the group stages: Ghana. They carried the continent’s hopes alone and came agonisingly close to a spot in the semi-final, robbed only by the hand of Luiz Suárez and the crossbar. In one of the most dramatic finishes in World Cup history, Suárez deliberately stopped the ball on the goal-line in the dying seconds of extra-time to prevent Ghana from scoring the winning goal. He was sent off, and Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take a penalty that would be the last kick of the game. His shot hit the bar, and though Gyan converted in the penalty shootout, Ghana lost 2-4.


The sheer physicality of West African teams, who have now eclipsed their slighter relatives from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) on the world stage, enhanced by the improved technical ability they have acquired recently, makes them a threat to teams from Europe and Latin America. African football has been helped by big European clubs, who set up youth academies in the continent to discover and groom talents for duty in Europe. However, one downside of this system is that European clubs tend to focus on creating players that fit into what Manchester United scout Tom Vernon famously called “the Papa Bouba Diop template”, after the tall, strong Senegalese midfielder. Essentially, European clubs are looking for African players with lots of strength, size, pace and technical ability, but not necessarily players who are creative (that is a trait still associated more with South American football). What this means is that talented, imaginative players who do not have the physical attributes expected of an African player are often ignored.


Think about the African players that have attained fame in Europe in recent times. You have either got muscular strikers, such as Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, powerful central midfielders, such as Yaya Toure, Michael Essien and Alex Song, or big central defenders such as Rigobert Song, Kolo Toure, John Mensah etc. Not many playmakers or nimble-footed wingers in there, are there?


Given all that, what are an African team’s chances of winning the 2014 World Cup? Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon are the five teams that have qualified. England manager Roy Hodgson thinks African sides have a “stronger chance than any of the European teams… because of the climate” (the Africans will be more used to the South American heat than the Europeans). However, Cameroon legend François Omam-Biyik, who played in three World Cups, 1990, 1994 and 1998, has ruled out the prospects of any African team reaching the semi-finals. “We don’t have any formidable teams that can compete at this year’s competition,” he said. “We have five teams representing the continent, but only one of them might qualify for the quarter-finals. This happens mostly because we have the mentality of picking one set of players to compete in African football and a completely different side when playing in the World Cup.”


Former Liverpool legend John Barnes, now a pundit with African TV channel SuperSport, has suggested mental frailty is holding the continent back. “It’s not just about physical ability, it’s about your mentality. I suppose that’s where African and other developing football countries such as Jamaica have to improve,” he said.


Barnes believes that underachievers Ivory Coast, Africa’s No. 1 team, will progress the farthest, their Group C (which contains them, Colombia, Greece and Japan) being relatively easy as compared to the tough pools that Cameroon (A) and Ghana (G) are shackled in. Ivory Coast are making their third appearance in a World Cup. In both 2006 and 2010, they were drawn in the group of death. But, this time, with star players such as Yaya and Kolo Touré, Cheick Tioté, Wilfried Bony, Didier Drogba and Gervinho in their side, they are expected to reach, at the very least, the second round.


Cameroon are the most experienced African team, making a record seventh appearance in the tournament, and their German manager, Volker Finke, has been able to mould them into a competent outfit who have, hopefully, put their inter-personal rivalries behind. Their main disadvantage is that they will have to outplay two teams out of Brazil, Croatia and Mexico to get out of their group. Ghana, last edition’s heroes, face similar problems, with Germany, Portugal and the USA all blocking their way to the knockout stages. Still, with a local manager leading them for the first time in a World Cup, and the experience of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan in their squad, Ghana are hopeful of causing an upset.


Nigeria, who won the 2013 African Cup of Nations, have drawn a group without too many big-name teams, as have Algeria, but there are doubts over whether either team has the firepower to make a significant impact on the tournament.


The advantages Asian teams hold over African ones are advanced infrastructure, competent organisation and depth in funds and resources. South Korea will be making their eighth consecutive appearance at a World Cup, while Japan are participating in their fifth consecutive tournament. With that much World Cup experience, both teams’ fans will be expecting progress from their teams.


The top ranked Asian country, though, is Iran (37th), who are managed by Carlos Quieroz, the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss. Their preparations have been hit by a lack of international friendlies, due to sanctions, but will consider their Group F opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria beatable.


Alberto Zaccheroni’s highly proficient Japanese side have 12 Europe-based players in their ranks, including Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa, AC Milan striker Keisuke Honda and Mainz forward Shinji Okazaki. Both they and South Korea are in groups they will think they should be able to advance from.


While it is likely a few teams from Asia and Africa will make it to the second round and one or two may even make it to the quarter-finals, the real question for the perennial underdogs is whether they can take the next step. With the South American teams expected to be at their best in Brazil, and Europe putting forward some strong contenders, the general consensus is that this won’t be an easy year for teams from the developing nations. Hopefully, for everyone who loves a good underdog, they will prove the doubters wrong.

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