Standing at just 36cm, way shorter than the BTC Premiership trophy, and weighing 6.1kg, the World Cup trophy has proved too heavy for African sides. For that weight, it should be a lightweight task, but it has proved to be a mammoth assignment since 1934, and it has been no different in Russia this year, writes MQONDISI DUBE
African players are generally regarded as physically strong, but lifting the 6.1kg all-gold World Cup trophy has proved to be a gargantuan task. Egypt became the first African side to compete in a World Cup in 1934, but went out after losing 4-2 to Hungary.
Signs of progress have been visible since Tunisia became the first African side to register a victory at the World Cup finals in 1978, coming from 1-0 down at half time, to see off Mexico 3-1.
In 1982, Algeria won twice and were still eliminated, but four years later in Mexico, Africa’s statement of intent grew louder as Morocco became the first side to emerge from the group stages but bowed out 1-0 to West Germany in the second round.
With Morocco’s performance in Mexico raising hopes, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon pushed the noise decibels a notch higher for the continent, as they powered through to the last eight at the 1990 finals in Italy. In the process, Cameroon claimed the scalp of defending champions, Argentina 1-0 through towering Francois Omam-Biyik’s strike. Cameroon had the whole world dancing to their exploits, with the trademark Roger Milla celebrations, infectious.
But the West Africans were cruelly dumped out in the quarterfinals by England when a place in the semifinals beckoned. England were awarded a penalty seven minutes from time to force the tie into extra time, where the English prevailed 3-2.
In 1994, talent- laden Nigeria, with the likes of Rashid Yekini, Finidi George and Emmanuel Amunike, progressed to the last 16 but were dumped out by Italy. It was a drop in performance from the strong Cameroon run in 1990. But the talent across the continent, with the likes of 1995 World Player of the Year, George Weah, Jean Claude Pagal, Joseph Antonio Bell, Peter Ndlovu, Fabrice Akwa, Kalusha Bwalya, Aboubacar ‘Titi’ Camara, Doctor Khumalo, Tony Yeboh, Abedi Pele and many others, provided sufficient hope that Africa was close to claiming the ultimate prize at the biggest stage. Weah remains the only African player to be crowned the best in world, but his continent has laboured, and often appeared out depth at the World Cup.
When Senegal beat France in the opening match of the 2002 tournament in South Korea, it evoked the 1990 memories, as the French were the defending champions. Like Cameroon, Senegal found a roadblock at the quarterfinals.
Ghana went agonisingly close on African soil in 2010 when a rushed Asamoah Gyan penalty crashed against the cross bar and flew away with the continent’s hopes of a first ever semi-final appearance.
Luis Suarez had handled in the box, right at the death, and had he converted, Gyan could have sent a whole continent into dreamland, but the cross bar was on hand to extinguish the flickering hopes.
Besides the three quarterfinals appearance and increasing number of African professionals in Europe, the continent has failed to lift the most prized football possession.
A cursory search of where a first ever triumph will come from, immediately draws a blank.
Bongani Malunga, a sports journalist and author of the soon to be released book, “Why an Africa team may never win the World Cup” argues that there are a plethora of reasons why Africa is far from claiming the biggest football prize, but one stands out like a sore thumb.
“So many factors have contributed to Africa’s World Cup drought, the biggest one being management. African teams have the talent, the skill and the ability to win, but their decision-making in decisive games always lets them down. They have historically let leads slip or had momentary concentration lapses in key moments of the game,” Malunga said, citing Nigeria’s elimination at the hands of Argentina on Tuesday night.
“Their defenders allowed Marcos Rojo, a central defender, space to score at a critical time when there was supposed to be intense man to man marking. Nobody tracked his run or even attempted to block his shot; there were not enough bodies in front of him.
“If we can learn game management and positioning in key moments, we will improve as a continent,” Malunga said.
Africa’s hopes at this year’s tournament were quickly quashed when, one-by-one, African teams were the first to check-out, as they flew back to their bases.
At the time of going to press, only Senegal carried the vast continent’s hopes, but were up against a dangerous Colombian side, which thumped Poland 3-0 with a dizzying display of clinical football on Sunday. While the World Cup remains one of the heaviest trophies, containing pure gold, at 6.1kg, on paper it represents light work for Africa, but the task has always remained daunting.