As the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia begins, our contributing editor, Michael Nnaji, previews the chances of Africa’s representatives at the Mundial.
The football fiesta will hold in Russia between 14 June and 15 July 2018. For the third time since the World Cup was expanded to accommodate 32 teams, Africa will be represented by 5 nations who emerged from a gruelling round of qualifying games. No African team has made it past the last 8 since the inception of the Mundial. The furthest the Sunny Continent has come to claiming football’s greatest prize was in 1990 (Cameroon), 2002 (Senegal) and 2006 (Ghana) who all went out in dramatic fashion in the quarterfinals.
Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia will be flying Africa’s flag at football’s ultimate showpiece this year. Here, we take a look at their chances, examining their strengths and weaknesses.
The Super Eagles are, on paper, Africa’s strongest team this time out. They went through the qualifying series unbeaten in the so-called ‘group of death’ that also featured Cameroon, Zambia and Algeria (all erstwhile African Champions). It is their sixth appearance at the World Cup, so they ought to have the pedigree to do well. And in their German manager, Gernot Rohr, they seem to have a disciplinarian who has imbued the players with, well, discipline and team spirit.
The goalkeeping position remains problematic following the retirement of their veteran shot-stopper, Vincent Enyeama. Otherwise the spine of the team should withstand the rigours of international football at its highest level. Jon Mikel Obi still pulls the strings in midfield in an advanced role ahead of the two midfield pivots, Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi.
On either side of Mikel are likely to be the irrepressible Victor Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi. The striker’s position will be occupied by Odion Ighalo, with Kelechi Iheanacho serving as back-up in Rohr’s favoured 4-2-1-3-1 system. During qualification, a newfound positional discipline was allied with typical Nigerian flair.
In a group including perennial World Cup opponents and nemesis Argentina as well as Croatia and Iceland, Nigeria should be expected to emerge from this group. Their first two matches are against Croatia and Iceland before they meet Argentina in the final group game. Fans of the Super Eagles will be hoping that Nigeria would have garnered enough points by then to render the last game a dead rubber affair.
Tip: if all things come together well for the Eagles, they should make the quarterfinals this time around.
Mohammed Salah. That is the name of the man on whose shoulders the weight of expectations of a whole nation rests. And with reason, too. Salah, who is undergoing rehabilitation after a shoulder injury during the UEFA Champions League Final in May, has had a phenomenal season for both club and country, scoring a whopping 48 goals in the process.
The Pharaohs, record African Champions with 7 continental triumphs, are surprisingly making their latest appearance after a long hiatus (they last appeared at Italia ‘90).
Salah will have alongside him a supporting cast of Mahmoud “Trezeguet” Hassan and Abdallah El Said, while in central defensive midfield Arsenal’s Mohammend Elnenny should offer robust protection for the defence set to be marshalled by Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazi (both of Westbromwich Albion) at centre-back, while the versatile Ahmed Fathi mans the right-back position.
Egypt are managed by the defensive-minded Spaniard, Hector Cuper, whose approach appears to be “safety first” with the Pharaohs having one of the most parsimonious defences during qualification. In goal they have the ageless Mohammed El Hadary, who, at 45, will be setting a new record for the oldest player to appear at the finals.
In a group that also harbours host Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, one would fancy the Pharaohs coming through behind Uruguay.
Tip: second round exit, which would represent relative success (Spain or Portugal await in the second round if they emerge from the group).
The Atlas Lions, like the Egyptians, are also making a comeback after a long absence from the World Cup (they last appeared at France ‚98). Morocco find themselves in the group of death, as it were, and are up against the rejuvenated 2010 Champions Spain, European Champions Portugal and Iran (who under Portuguese manager, Carlos Querois are no pushovers). So the Lions have their work cut out for them.
Manager Hervé Renard, who won the African nations’ Cup with Zambia, guided the team back to the World Cup after negotiating some tough qualifying games against the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali en route to Russia. Although in playmaker Hakim Ziyech (Ajax Amsterdam) they have a highly gifted midfielder pulling the strings in midfield, they lack international experience. But expect their wily manager to fashion a way around this problem in finding a system that compensates for the perceived weaknesses of his team.
To wit, the Lions are set to adopt an ultra-defensive approach with Mehdi Benatia (Juventus Turin) in central defence and take their chances upfront when the space for counter-attacks present themselves. They first play Iran (and would hope for a win here) and then Portugal (a draw will do) before facing Spain in their final game in the group.
However, in a group that also includes traditional footballing nations, Spain and Portugal, the Lions are – barring any miracles – expected to struggle.
Tip: exit at the group stages (Spain and Portugal to emerge from the group).
The Carthage Eagles are clear underdogs to go through in a group that includes football powerhouses England and Belgium. They will doubtlessly carry on with a 3-man central defence which can be switched to 5 at the back against supposedly stronger teams.
Star player is Wahbi Khazri (Montpellier) who is expected to provide the creative spark in midfield in the absence of the injured Taha Yassine Khenissi. The bulk of the team ply their trade in the local league, so expect manager Nabil Maâloul to place the emphasis on the collective, an approach which served them well in a tough qualifying group that comprised Guinea, Libya and DR Congo.
In their first game they face England and will hope to at least nick a draw before facing Panama; the clash against Belgium brings up the rear, and the Eagles will be hoping that the constellation of results in the final permutation will see them through.
Tip: first round exit England and Belgium to go through at Tunisia’s expense.
The Terenga Lions, making a comeback after that scintillating World Cup Campaign in 2002 (joint-hosted by Japan and South Korea), where they made it all the way to the last 8, have been drawn to meet Japan, Poland and Columbia. They are the only African team that have an African manager at the helm, with the 43 year-old Aliou Cisse, who captained the 2002 side, also being the youngest manager at this year’s World Cup.
Although the talent base has dried up somewhat of late, they still have an impressive spine comprising Kalidou Koulibaly (SSC Napoli) in central defence, Idrissa Gana Gueye (OSC Lille) and Badou and the dynamic Sadio Mané (Liverpool FC) up front. The group is eminently ‘do-able’ for the Africa’s representative.
Tip: Senegal to make it out of the group and exit in the second round (potential second round against Belgium or England; or maybe Tunisia).