World Cup Special: After decades of near misses, will an African team reach the semi-final?




Since the inception of the World Cup, no African team has ever gone past the quarter-final. Many are optimistic that it will happen someday, but hardened believers hope thatsomeday is Russia 2018.

Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are Africa’s five representatives at the upcoming World Cup and they will all be aiming to surpass the quarter-final achievements of Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

A major problem African teams face at the World football showpiece is lack of organisation, teamwork and tactical acumen. Critics have labelled African teams as concentrating more on the physicality of the game and neglecting the technical aspects.

Ahead of the tournament in Russia, it does not appear like much has changed in that regard, but the jury is still out on that.

Here are the African teams hoping to go the distance at this World Cup.

MOROCCO

Morocco are back at the World Cup following a 20-year absence. Herve Renard, former Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire gaffer, is the architect of their resurgence.

The Atlas Lions are considered third in the pecking order in a group which has the likes of 2010 world champions Spain, reigning European champions Portugal, and Iran.

Despite qualifying for the competition at the expense of Cote d’Ivoire, the Moroccan squad is short on World Cup experience as it is comprised mainly of rookies.

Morocco have been at the World Cup five times and are yet to progress past the last 16. It is hard to see that changing this time around, although the players have promised to use their underdog tag as motivation.

Key player: Medhi Benatia. The former Roma central defender is the leader in the dressing room. His experience will be vital.

Prediction: Hard to see how they will qualify for the round of 16. They look destined for the third spot in Group B.

NIGERIA

The first African nation to seal their ticket to Russia are a compact and composed outfit, with a style that is pleasing to the eye.

The Super Eagles have John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, creative players who can bring a spark to the team. The likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, and Odion Ighalo carry a considerable goal threat.

In Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles have a wily old coach. The Franco-German’s greatest task will be to ensure his side’s attacking focus does not leave the defence vulnerable.

Grouped alongside Croatia, Iceland and Argentina in their fifth World Cup, the Super Eagles, if well prepared, can make it out of the group stage.

Key player: John Obi Mikel. The playmaker stands out for his technique and exquisite attacking thrust.

Prediction: Nigeria are no doubt Africa’s best hope of doing well in Russia. With the talented crop of players available for selection, this appears to be their best chance to finally make it to the quarter-finals.

TUNISIA

Tunisia start the tourney with a tricky game against England. They also have Belgium and debutant Panama to contend with.

On paper, England and Belgium should easily qualify, but in football, anything can happen. Tunisia, which in 1978 became the first African team to win a World Cup match, can certainly win points in this group.

Tunisia have an experienced coach in Nabil Maâloul, who is renowned for his motivational skills and has forged his side into a tight unit.

The most significant omission is the skillful Youssef Msakni who suffered a knee injury in April. He grabbed a treble against Guinea in the qualifiers.

A lot will depend on the midfield quartet of Anice Badri, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghaylene Chaalali.

Key player: Wahbi Khazri. The versatile forward was a key player for the Carthage Eagles during the World Cup qualifiers.

Prediction: Tunisia will have to play some extraordinary football to qualify from a group which has England and Belgium. Realistically, they appear set for another early exit.

SENEGAL

The class of 2002, which reached the last eight of Korea/Japan World Cup, has been termed the golden generation of Senegalese football.

Aliou Cisse, captain of that Senegal team, is the gaffer of the Russia-bound team.

As always, the Teranga Lions are energetic and enthusiastic. Under Cisse, Senegal initially struggled, but an encouraging sequence of results suggest that a corner has been turned.

Making their second World Cup appearance, Senegal are seeking to emulate their 2002 display and qualify for the knockout stages.

Poland are favourites in Group H, with Colombia and Japan making up the other spots. If Senegal are to stand any chance of advancing, they must build their game around the likes of Sadio Mane, Balde Keita, Moussa Sow and Briam Diouf.

Key player: Sadio Mane is immensely talented, and can operate through the middle or on the flanks. He can also be relied on for crucial goals.

Prediction: Senegal’s chances depend on the encounter with Poland, a game that is evenly matched. Second place appears certain, but it remains to be seen if they can go beyond the round of 16.

EGYPT

This is the first time the North African country will qualify for the World Cup after a 28-year hiatus. In 1934, Egypt became the first African team to play in the World Cup. When they qualified again in 1990, they became the team with the longest-ever gap between two FIFA World Cup matches: 56 years and 16 days.

With Hector Cuper now running the show and Mohamed Salah leading the charge, Egypt will be hoping to wiggle out of their inconsistent past.

Egypt, who qualified ahead of highly-favoured Ghana, stand a good chance of making it out of their group.

Key player. Mohamed Salah. The Liverpool star is a player full of flair who can change a game in a split second. Salah will be a potent threat for Egypt.

Prediction: In a group comprising of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Uruguay, the Pharaohs will fancy their chances of qualification. Going beyond the round of 16? It’s hard to say.



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