Africa has not had a good start so far at Russia 2018, with Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt losing their opening games. But the global football festival is just starting off and a lot of surprises are still possible. Our contributing writer Maximilian Lütgens, speaks in an exclusive interview with German trainer Lutz Pfannenstiel, who has worked in Africa as both player and coach. Pfannenstiel talks about the World Cup as he analyses the African participants, names the players to watch out for and points out which countries may go furthest at the competition. He also speculates on who will carry the World Cup 2018 trophy this year.
Mr Pfannenstiel, you have been active as goalkeeper and coach in Africa and you are often in the continent for the charity project Global United. At the World Cup in Russia you are working again as an expert on television. Where does African football stand at the World Cup in Russia?
I think that the gap between the African teams and the top teams worldwide has remained roughly the same for the past four years. However, talents are developing more and more and you can see more and more players coming from African countries and imprinting the big leagues in Europe.
When it comes to the national team, you can see that the whole thing is still a little uncoordinated. The current African champions Cameroon did not qualify, but other teams qualified who were not even at the Africa Cup of Nations last year. It is an incredibly tight level and the teams are very close together. Since I’m a close friend of Nigeria national coach Gernot Rohr and still flew in May to Nigeria to support the team in the preparation, I am pleased that Gernot qualified confidently with this team.
Like Gernot Rohr, Morocco coach Hervé Renard, another experienced coach in Africa, is playing for the first time at a World Cup. What kind of style do they both play and can they survive the preliminary round with their teams?
I think they are two very different coaches, in the way they play but also how they manage the team. Gernot Rohr is a real gentleman and with his very humane, friendly and down-to-earth style, has managed to earn the highest possible respect in Nigeria. Nigeria has a very good team with well-known players like Victor Moses and many others who are not as well known. However, they have landed in an absolute ‘group of death’ with Croatia, Argentina and Iceland. It is a completely diverse and very exciting group of different football cultures.
Hervé Renard is a gifted and very successful coach after winning the African Cup with Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire. But you don’t have to have any big expectations for Morocco because of the two European top teams Portugal and Spain in the group.
The team not only has a good coach, but also a very good team with well-known players like Mehdi Benatia of Juventus Turin, or Armin Harit of Schalke 04. It remains to be seen if they are good enough to keep up with Spain and European champions Portugal.
Senegal and Tunisia are counting on local coaches with Aliou Cissé and Nabil Maaloul, an encouraging trend or rather an exception?
I think it’s good that local coaches now also have opportunities. It has been seen at the 2010 World Cup, when Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Ghana turned up with European coaches, who took up the job three months before the competition. They did not know the players and got the job only because of their big names. So the trend is really better and we are coming away from this coach-star cult. This year, the mix of African coaches and foreign coaches with affinity to Africa is a step in the right direction.
The Egyptian Mohammed Salah and the Senegalese Sadio Mané are the two outstanding stars of the Champions League finalist Liverpool FC. Can they make the difference for their countries at the World Cup?
I know that Mohammed Salah is revered in Egypt like a pharaoh and has achieved a status in his country that few football players in the world could ever reach. He has earned it by his extremely polite, down to earth and friendly nature. That’s the nice thing about him.
Should Salah be fit after his shoulder injury in time, then the entire game of the Egyptians will be tailored to him, which of course is easily calculated by the opponents. The quality of the team is, of course, different to what it is in Liverpool. One can trust Salah, however that he plays outstandingly in the World Cup, even if the group with Uruguay is not to be underestimated.
For the Senegalese, this may be a bit different as they play a very simple 4-3-3 football and have players who are physically and emotionally strong. Salif Sané from Hannover 96 is a good example with his duel strength and goal-scoring standards. And if you have such a goal-scoring and fast player in front with a Mané, then this is already a team that can defeat Japan or Colombia.
Egypt’s goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary can advance to the oldest player at a World Cup at the age of 45. At what age is the limit for a goalkeeper?
Coincidentally, he is also a very good acquaintance of mine and we have already played against each other. He is basically a goalkeeper who is still physically fit and trains hard. However, his career as a national goalkeeper was already over. Due to the injuries of the very talented regular goalkeeper, he had to be used again. Playing at a World Cup with 45 years is definitely something special, also because he is a cult figure. He will go down in history as one of the best African goalkeepers of all time.
Which African team comes furthest and who will be world champion?
I believe that Tunisia and Morocco can only emerge from their difficult groups with a sensational performance. I already believe in the Egyptians that they can cause one or two surprises. Nigeria is one of the underdogs for me, but one of the teams that can create a sensation. Senegal has two well-known opponents in their group with Colombia and Poland, but with one or two outstanding individual players is progress also possible. However, I do not believe that an African team will be there until the end of the tournament, unless Nigeria comes out of the group and then has a run. I would be glad, because the team embodies so much fun and comradeship.
For the World Cup title, of course, the pool of the usual favourites comes in. I tip Brazil among the top favourites in the tournament, with England and Belgium a bit at the back of my mind.