Not since 1982 has there been a World Cup knockout stage without an African side, but where did it all go wrong for the continent’s quintet?
In one of the most superb opening lines in all of literature, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy remarks, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
He may well have been remarking upon Africa’s showing at the World Cup almost 150 years later: Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal all have cause for regret after their tragic group stage exits, but while the misery is the same, the particulars are not.
For Egypt, drawn in the weakest group and alongside the weakest seed, and making a first World Cup appearance in 28 years, this tournament represented a great opportunity to make a proper splash.
For so long Africa’s dominant side, there has lingered about the Pharaohs the sense of a big fish in a (figuratively) small pond. It is a notion that a sorry campaign has done plenty to dispel: Egypt was one of only two teams to finish the Group Stage without registering a single point.
The injury to Mohamed Salah was no doubt the headline, but the utter incompetence of the rest of the side in his absence – and subsequent half-presence – poses even more damming questions about the management of the team, as well as Egypt’s football development in general.
While the now-departed Hector Cuper’s side embraced ignominy, there was rather more to be proud of, even in elimination, for the rest of the contingent.
Senegal and Nigeria went into their final group matches with qualification firmly within their grasps, both requiring draws to progress.
Neither managed it, however; their game management, both in failing to score while on top and in seeing out a match from a position of advantage, failing at the most crucial moments.
However, both could rightly rue their sloppiness in previous encounters—Nigeria seemed unaware that the World Cup had actually kicked off in their opening loss to Croatia, while Senegal should not have twice blown a lead against Japan.
Morocco and Tunisia lost twice on the bounce, but salvaged some pride on the final day.
For the Atlas Lions, it was a first World Cup appearance in 20 years, and to their credit they were never outplayed in Russia.
Instead, it was a lack of clinical edge upfront that did Herve Renard’s men in: Khalid Boutaib scored against Spain on the final day, but was criminally isolated against Portugal, left alone to battle Pepe and Jose Fonte for Nordin Amrabat’s deliveries.
Tunisia were somewhat unfortunate with the order of the fixtures. Had they played Panama first, they perhaps might have gone forward with greater confidence. Instead, they seemed in a strait betwixt two early on, and got punished particularly ruthlessly by Belgium and England.
In amidst their individual agonies, there are however some common threads that tie up this casserole of disappointment quite neatly.
On the surface, Africa’s five representatives are drawn from its top seven sides, and so constitute the strongest possible contingent. However, a deeper look reveals an unusual statistic: only Nigeria, of the five, have featured in the last two World Cup tournaments.
For Egypt, it was their first since 1990. For Morocco, first since 1998. Tunisia, 2006. Senegal, 2002. It made for novelty, and some great stories, but ultimately Africa rocked up at the global fiesta riddled with inexperience and ignorance of football at the highest level.
It may not seem like that big of a deal, but the constantly evolving nature of football demands constant involvement and participation. With nothing to occupy them besides African football, in the form of qualifiers and the Africa Cup of Nations, it is no surprise that they displayed such startling naivety at times.
This manifested in a number of ways: a peculiar vulnerability to set-plays (even Senegal, one of the biggest sides at the tournament, were undone by a corner kick); a total lack of nous and composure in seeing out games – Aziz Bouhaddouz vs. Iran, Nigeria dropping as deep as its own six-yard line against Argentina, Tunisia vs. England; as well as temperament – see Senegal getting knocked out on Fair Play points; one could go on and on.
This lack of experience also robbed Africa of the chance to build progressively.
Aside from lucking onto a Golden Generation, the way to excel at World Cups is to make gains incrementally. Germany went from two straight semi-finals to winning it all in 2014 by mining the lessons gleaned from failure. Ghana swept to the last eight in 2010 by learning from the pain of 2006. It’s a process, as they say.
The abrupt shake-up in the African football hierarchy is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, as some of the old guard (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast) had fallen into a rut precipitated by complacency and awful administration. That said, when viewed in the isolation of this particular cycle, it cost the continent something.
What is particularly disappointing is that, while one could argue that experience was lacking, there was not exactly a sense of abandon about the five. Experience, valuable as it is, can often lend itself to caginess. In its absence, there was not even a sense of adventure to compensate.
Had there been a team that truly captured the imagination by playing the expressive, almost joyously puerile football with which the continent is so often stereotyped, there might have been some consolation.
Instead, the stodgy, unimaginative fare served up by, in particular, Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, made for some rather dull fare with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Morocco were perhaps the exception, playing an almost Spanish passing game, in keeping with their geographical proximity to the Iberian Peninsula. Senegal were unabashedly themselves, rigidly organized and breaking at pace through their wingers, but crucially lacked a real flourish at the end of their plays, such as their 2002 vintage possessed.
That there seemed such a stylistic mismatch between some of the teams and their managers is odd: Egypt, whose last appearance on the world stage – the 2009 Confederations Cup – saw them record a 4-3 loss to Brazil, such is their attacking bent – were coached by the dour Cuper; Nigeria’s expressive, slightly chaotic brand was helmed with Teutonic pragmatism by Gernot Rohr.
It felt, at times, almost un-African to be so risk averse, and perhaps the great message of this World Cup to Africa is to embrace and espouse its own style more readily, and play to its own strengths.