Can an African team win the 2010 World Cup?

By David Ornstein

Close your eyes and try to imagine the scenes of jubilation across Africa if a team from the continent were to win the 2010 World Cup. A celebration like no other, one billion people revelling in one of the greatest sporting and cultural achievements.

For the first time in its 80-year history, football's blue riband competition is coming to the world's poorest and most underdeveloped land. How better to mark the occasion than with a first African champion?
"Winning the World Cup would be one of the proudest moments in the history of that country and our continent as a whole," former South Africa striker Shaun Bartlett told BBC Sport.

Group-stage exit unless stated
1934: Egypt
1970: Morocco
1974: Zaire
1978: Tunisia
1982: Algeria, Cameroon
1986: Algeria, Morocco (last 16)
1990: Egypt, Cameroon (quarter-finals)
1994: Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria (last 16)
1998: Cameroon, Nigeria (last 16), South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco
2002: Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal (quarter-finals), South Africa, Tunisia
2006: Angola, Ghana (last 16), Ivory Coast, Togo, Tunisia

"Every African nation has its internal problems but football can do wonders for people and nations, which is a huge incentive." Nobody is saying it is going to happen but the groundswell of opinion suggests South Africa 2010 is the best opportunity yet.

Unperturbed by his 1977 prediction that an African side would triumph by the end of the 20th century, Brazil legend Pele genuinely believes it can occur. His namesake Abedi Pele, a former Ghana international, and Liberian George Weah, two of the greatest players to emerge from Africa and still highly influential figures within the game, are equally convinced.

Not only are the six African representatives competing on home soil but they will benefit from an advantage that the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England will never have - the support of an entire continent.

"The idea that one of our sides could win the World Cup is not going too far," said former Nigeria captain Sunday Oliseh. "African players perform a lot on emotions and that will be a powerful force. "When Nigeria played at the Olympics in 1996 we were not playing as Nigerians but as Africans because we had every African country behind us.

"We had this psychological edge and if an African nation gets to the semi-finals on home soil in 2010, I would not want to be in the team who plays against them."

All but five of the 18 previous World Cups have been won by teams from the host continent, while Brazil's victories at Mexico 1970 and USA 1994 and Argentina's triumph at Mexico 1986 were still in the Americas. There is little doubt that home advantage helped South Korea reach the 2002 semi-finals.
Former Charlton forward Bartlett suggested the "spirit inside every African" and the various expatriate communities in South Africa will ensure huge support for each home nation, with fans of one African side rallying behind another once their team has ben knocked out.

Yet optimism stems more from the knowledge that, in terms of numbers, quality and experience, this is the strongest set of African nations to contest a World Cup. Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria and Ghana constitute a fearsome quintet, while South Africa will be desperate to avoid embarrassment on home soil.

Ivory Coast are viewed as having the most talented squad but much will also be expected of Ghana following their impressive World Cup debut in 2006 and Cameroon, revitalised under ex-Rangers coach Paul Le Guen and making an African record sixth appearance in the finals.

Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa - the only African team who will be seeded - might be less fancied but all three are capable of reaching the knockout phase. "African teams have matured a lot, they no longer want to go to competitions to make numbers; they want to make an impression," stated Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure.

"The difference between the teams from African and European countries is no longer vast. In the past, African teams were taken for granted in big tournaments but this time it's going to be different."
Since Zaire became the first African nation to qualify for a World Cup in 1974, the continent can lay claim to only two quarter-finalists - Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.

So what makes them better equipped in 2010? Increased experience, maturity and tactical awareness are sure to play a part but, above all else, Oliseh points to the number of Africans now mixing it with the best on a weekly basis.

"Nothing boosts a player more than playing at the top level each week and winning titles," added the ex-Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who rose to fame with a stunning goal for Nigeria against Spain at France 1998. "A lot of African players have won titles in the last four years.

"Samuel Eto'o and Yaya Toure won the Champions League with Barcelona and Didier Drogba and Michael Essien reached the previous final with Chelsea. "They know what it takes to win at the very highest level of club football. If they can bring that mentality to their national sides they will be hard to beat."

All six of the African teams have their weaknesses - Bartlett mentions "poor goalkeepers", "occasionally catastrophic defending" and "a tendency to concede late goals because they can't concentrate for 90 minutes" - and a lot will depend on their ability to stay injury-free, especially with January's Africa Cup of Nations looming in Angola.

Yet that tournament will provide five of them (South Africa failed to qualify) with competitive game time to work on their plans - something that no other nation will benefit from between now and 11 June.
Which is just as well because South Africa 2010 promises to be one of the most fiercely contested World Cups to date, with every past champion in attendance and no genuine contenders missing. At Germany 2006, the Ivory Coast were pooled with Argentina and the Netherlands and Ghana reached the round of 16 only to be pitted against five-time champions Brazil.

Good fortune also evaded Senegal in 2002 as they were eliminated on the golden goals rule and Cameroon in 1990 after they succumbed to England after two controversially awarded penalties. Serious question marks also surrounded Germany's 1-0 victory over Austria that knocked out Algeria in 1982.
"If the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon have good draws and a bit of good fortune I can see them going as far as the semi-finals," commented Bartlett. "After that, the team who plays better on the day will go through so anything could happen."

If you look at the way they play, the quality of their squad and the teams their stars play for, it's clear the Ivory Cost could do the unthinkable by winning the World Cup Although the altitude at Johannesburg's Soccer City could favour the Africans, this will be the first winter World Cup since 1978 so cold temperatures should make for neutral footballing conditions.

That will contrast sharply with the weather in Angola during the Cup of Nations, increasing the need for thorough and well-organised preparation - a lack of which has seriously damaged the African challenge in years gone by.

"There have always been problems off the pitch which prevent our teams from having that extra edge to go further," divulged Oliseh.

"In 2002 it took Cameroon two days to get to their base; they were the last team to arrive in South Korea. There were so many administrative problems, with things like travelling, flights and player bonuses that the players weren't focused enough to win."

Bartlett added that "one or two African teams will still be fighting over money when the tournament starts, organisation is a huge issue".

If they manage to avoid such problems, we could be in for an absolute treat. African nations have been punching above their weight for some time, their progress severely hampered by poverty and a lack of resources.

After battling against the odds for so long, who would begrudge one of their captains holding aloft the FIFA World Cup trophy at Soccer City on 11 July 2010?

Additional reporting by BBC Sport's Alistair Magowan.

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