By Andrew Jerrel Jones / @sluggahjells
Of the previous 20 FIFA World Cup tournaments that have occurred, only one of them has been held in the continent of Africa. That lone hosting of the global championship from South Africa in 2010 for the Confederation of African Football (CAF) seems big, however, compared to the number of semifinalists the region has had in the 88 years of the quadrennial global soccer tournament.
Unlike the early installments of the World Cup back from the 1930 to 1966, where Egypt was the only African country that played in a World Cup during that period (1934), Africa has had at least one representative since the 1970 edition in Mexico. But almost a half-century on, the continent is still is looking for its first World Cup semifinalist.
After heartbreakingly close calls in the quarterfinals for Cinderella-squad Senegal in 2002 and tantalizingly talented Ghana in 2010 – Ghana could have done so on Africa’s first hosting of the World Cup – the CAF region has been knocking on the door recently to have one of its own reach the final week of the great tournament. But will 2018 finally be the year?
The obvious CAF teams with the best World Cup odds going into Russia 2018 are Egypt, Senegal and Morocco.
At the center of the pre-World Cup hype, not only for Africa’s participants but the entire world, is one Mohamed Salah. The Liverpool forward has transformed himself, in his first year with the storied Anfield club, from intriguing winger to the best player in the Premier League. In fact, the El Mokawloon-developed product has currently replaced an injured Neymar as the prime contender to ending the seemingly unrelenting duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ownership of “World’s Best Player.”
Salah by himself makes the Pharaohs a threat to any opponent – even defending champion Germany – since only a handful of players on Earth can score goals and win games on individual brilliance alone like him. Luckily for side, the 25-year-old isn’t Egypt’s only notable proven commodity.
Thankfully, Mohamed Elneny will be healthy for his country going into their World Cup preparations after his best season with Arsenal. The excellent passing, moving and shooting midfielder had a major injury scare that ruled him out of Arsene Wenger’s last games ahead of the Gunners.
Elneny and Salah alone are a formidable one-two force, but Egypt also have other Premier League quality talents. Despite both of their teams being relegated, West Brom centerback Ahmed Hegazi and Stoke City’s exciting 21-year-old Ramadan Sobhi bring their own unique abilities. The same holds true for veteran right-back Ahmed Elmohamady of Hull City, giving manager Hector Cuper’s squad plenty of evidence to refute anyone claiming they are a one-man squad. Strengthening Egypt’s chances at a run this World Cup is that outside of the favored Uruguay, Group A has two week teams in ailing host Russia and the marginally talented Saudi Arabia.
Senegal has their own Liverpool standout winger in Sadio Mane. While Salah has deservedly garnered top billing, Mane has been essential to Liverpool’s quest for a sixth European club championship in its history. There is no question that the electric 26-year-old is capable of causing even the world’s best backlines more stress than Thanos does to peaceful beings. And like Egypt, the Black Stars aren’t just a single star show, something that is key if you are to qualify out of CAF’s ‘all or nothing’ qualifying setup.
Senegal captain and West Ham United midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate is still his high voltage, box-to-box self in midfield, while Salif Sane facilitated Hannover 96’s safe return to the Bundesliga with a four-goal, defensively respectable season. Mane isn’t the only threat in attack for his nation, as Rennes’ Diafra Sakho and former French youth international M’Baye Niang have all the abilities that the world’s best line-leading forwards have.
And amazingly enough, Mane may not even be among the top two talents in this squad, as 19-year-old Ismalia Sarr and 23-year-old Keita Balde either have been linked to Barcelona or been kicked out of Barcelona for placing an ice cube in a teammate’s bed, respectively. Balde will hope his team doesn’t get the early boot in a Group H where all four sides (Colombia, Japan and Poland) are more than capable of advancing.
If Salah & Mane are unstoppable forces in attack, then Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia is an immovable object at the other end. The center-back was the driving force in Morocco’s return to the world stage after a two decades absence. And Benatia isn’t the only high level French born and raised talent now plying their trade for their parents’ homeland, with Schalke’s Amine Harit and Caen’s Youssef Ait Bennasser two burgeoning young 20-year-olds for the Atlas Lions. But the biggest talent of them all for Herve Renard’s team is Spanish-developed, and developed none other by the best club in the world.
Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi has become a trusted backup to world class right-back Dani Carvajal in Zinedine Zidane’s copiously gifted squad. The 19-year-old Hakimi has showcased in the Bernabeu some impressive impersonations of the dynamic Carvajal, with his lightning pace and an all-seeing eye for attack. He certainly is a potential future challenger to Abdelmajid ‘Maestro’ Dolmy’s 140 caps record for Morocco, with a realistic chance to be an elite player in world football for the next decade. Ironically, Hakimi is in the same group with the country he was born in as the mighty Spain serves as Morocco’s third group opponent after the crucial opener vs. Iran and Euro 2016 titleholder Portugal. Both Iberian nations are favored to progress, but Cristiano, Sergio Ramos and Marcos Asensio will be fully cognizant of the skill and will Hakimi and Morocco possess.
Mane, Sane and Benatia are without question the best African representatives coming to the Kremlin in a few weeks’ time. But CAF’s most consistent, best overall team continues to be Nigeria. Since the ’94 World Cup here in the States, the Super Eagles have been Africa’s most present side in FIFA’s premiere event, only missing out in Germany 2006 due to losing a head-to-head tiebreaker to Angola. With always solid veterans and box-office young talent in their program, Nigeria’s team boasts those same characteristics once more.
It seems like he’s been around forever, but 31-year-old John Obi Mikel is still his country’s capable captain. Victor Moses has cemented his status as a Chelsea regular in both Antonio Conte’s seasons. Ahmed Musa buzzes with match-changing pace, dribbling and shooting ability. And both Kelechi Ihenacho and Alex Iwobi are still two of Earth’s most promising under-23 year olds.
However, for Nigeria to reach uncharted territory for itself and its continent, it will have to navigate through this World Cup’s Group of Death. Analogous to being apart of Korea/Japan 2002’s toughest quartet, CAF’s most stable force will again have to deal with three difficult group rivals. And for their fourth straight World Cup, Nigeria has drawn powerhouse Argentina. Luckily for Gernot Rohr’s team, they face Messi’s squad on the final matchday, making their group opener against the potent Croatia all the more important. Nigeria’s middle game is no reprieve either against Viking clap darlings Iceland, who have an amalgamation of grit and actual ability that no one can take lightly ever at a major tournament (hello, England).
The African team least likely to make an unprecedented semifinals appearance is Tunisia, as they and CONCACAF minnow Panama are the Group G also-rans to Belgium and the Three Lions. But if these words, along with countless of others doubting them, spurs Nabil Maaloul’s group to miracles, we will all be pleasantly shocked.
At some point, whether it’s this World Cup or not, Africa will get its long awaited semifinalist. All the other regions’ presidents don’t have to dwell on one of their nations not reaching the coveted destination, with South Korea using their homefield advantage in 2002 to give Asia its first and only last four participant, while CONCACAF was fortunate that the debut tournament saw the United States reach the penultimate stage of the then 13-team field. (Oh, and the USMNT needed one more well-deserved mention of embarrassingly missing out on Russia and the sting will hurt for a long while).
But if the decades-long drought continues for the motherland, Africa will have to just call Wakanda’s ‘Vibranium Warriors’ to not only reach the semifinals, but win the whole damn thing.
Andrew Jones is a sports, political and culture reporter whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Intercept, Ebony Magazine, World Soccer Talk, MSNBC, the Grio and the Nation. He has also made appearances on Al Jazeera English and Huffington Post TV. And, no, he doesn’t think Tom Brady is the GOAT