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World Cup 2010: Africa's great leap forward turns into sorry stumble
David Smith in Johannesburg - 4 years ago

Time is still making a mug out of Pelé. Every four years his oft-quoted prophecy that an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the 20th century looks more and more naive.

This year was meant to be different. With great (vuvuzela) fanfare, the tournament is being played on African soil for the first time. Politicians and organisers came up with the somewhat twee "African six-pack" to describe the half-dozen nations they boasted could bring glory to the continent. Mindful of names such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o, and clearly having failed to learn his lesson, Pelé predicted that an African team would meet Brazil in the final. If ever African football's moment had arrived, this was surely it.

How different it all looks now. Cameroon, the Indomitable Lions who surprised the world in 1990, are out after losing both matches so far. Nigeria, also beaten twice, are hanging by a thread, with midfielder Sani Kaita even receiving death threats. Algeria and Ivory Coast are very probably going home, too. South Africa need a miracle to avoid becoming the first hosts in history not to qualify for the second round. Even Ghana, the sole African victors so far, are up against it with a crunch game against Germany.

• Follow the Guardian's World Cup team on Twitter• Sign up to play our great Fantasy Football game• Stats centre: Get the lowdown on every player• The latest team-by-team news, features and moreAfrica's record in its first World Cup is: played 12, won 1, drawn 4, lost 7. The pre-tournament hype and expectation appear to have been inversely proportionate to the performances and results. Instead of a great leap forward, Africa could be without any representation in the last 16 for the first time in 28 years.

Where did it all go wrong? Technically the African teams might have home advantage, but it doesn't necessarily feel that way. The five visitors have vocal support from many South Africans but relatively few of their own fans could afford the trip. The winter weather here is proving more reminiscent of Europe than Abidjan or Algiers. And, no longer the surprise packages, African teams have laboured under unprecedented pressure.

The lofty predictions of a home win were based on emotion rather than cold reality, suggests Steve Bloomfield, author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa. "Ghana aside, they all have their own particular problems," he says. "South Africa aren't very good and if they had to qualify for this World Cup, would have come nowhere. Algeria are hard-working but little more. Cameroon have had enormous internal problems with different player cliques.

"The Nigerians had arguably the most chaotic preparation any World Cup team has ever had: a series of arranged friendlies that were cancelled, flights that were missed because the plane was broken, stampedes at warm-up matches. Everything that could have gone wrong with Nigeria has gone wrong. That leaves Ghana, who've done well, and Ivory Coast, who've had a really difficult draw that any team would struggle with."

Bloomfield, a British journalist based in Kenya, added: "So there's no over-arching reason. I think the problem is there was an expectation that because this was Africa's World Cup, the African teams would do well. But it was an expectation based on nothing more than hope."

The inquests have already begun into the fundamental causes of African football's malaise. It cannot only be poverty or violence: there are plenty of both in Brazil. It cannot only be that many players are based overseas: so are the best South Americans. It certainly cannot be lack of interest: this World Cup has shown Africa is as passionate about football as anywhere.

Lucas Radebe, the former Leeds and South Africa defender, blames the misfire on bad management. "I don't think there's proper communication with the teams," he says. "Some coaches have been playing very defensive formations with players in difficult positions where it's hard to perform to the level expected. They are good players, so it's very disappointing."

Many nations in Africa turn to foreign coaches. Lars Lagerback with Nigeria, Sven-Goran Eriksson with Ivory Coast and Carlos Alberto Parreira with South Africa were all relatively late appointments that smacked of panic. "I don't think we believe in our own coaches, so we bring in European coaches and it doesn't work," Radebe adds. "This World Cup was a great opportunity for local coaches to showcase our type of football, but that's not the way it's gone. Most of the teams are playing the wrong style of football."

But Marcel Desailly, the Ghana-born former France captain, says the European coaches bring valuable experience preferable to unready local coaches. He cites the weakness of African domestic football as undermining the continent's chances.

"We need to work more on the local leagues," said Desailly, an ambassador for the World Cup sponsor Castrol, which claims its statistical analysis tools give insights "into winning performance" in football. "Today, if you take away the first tiers of players from Brazil, who are based in Europe, you will still have players in their domestic league who can perform at a high level. Too many African players go abroad at a young age. They are not ready to cope with the environment in countries like Russia and Ukraine. It would be better to grow them up in your own country."

Failure to invest in grassroots structures is a recurring criticism, with South Africa a notable example. Since winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, Bafana Bafana have gone backwards, with money lavished on hosting this tournament, and on Parreira's salary, rather than on long-term facilities and development.

Domestic club competitions in Africa struggle to compete for eyeballs with television coverage of the English Premier League or the Champions League. And many football associations are bedevilled by corruption, factionalism and political cronyism, starving the game of resources and strategy.

Bloomfield adds: "It's one thing to play barefoot in the street when you're six years old and develop your skills that way, but to actually become a proper footballer you need good coaches and facilities. Brazil is in parts very poor but it also has pockets of enormous wealth and a very strong footballing tradition, so there are numerous centres of excellence if you're a talented 12- or 13-year-old. Africa doesn't have that.

"Look at the African stars who have made it: almost all of them went to Europe at a very early age. Drogba was in France when he was still a kid. In South Africa still, the facilities at schools for rugby and cricket are incredibly superior to the facilities for football."

Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, has said while his country is the stage for this World Cup, Africa is the theatre. Yet even here, it seems, Africans will once again be relegated to the audience while Europeans and South Americans take the starring roles.

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.

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