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Africa lurching backwards

2010-06-21 13:30
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Never mind the much-desired great leap forward by African soccer at the first World Cup staged on this continent ... there is a very real danger it will actually regress in 2010.

That is the unpalatable truth on Monday, a day when cynics might argue that at least the African cause won’t be damaged further: none of its six mostly stuttering representatives are playing.

Sunday’s 3-1 defeat for the Ivory Coast to Brazil in a fiery encounter at Soccer City – might the game itself have been the firecracker up the rump this tournament needed? – means that a side widely tipped to lead the continent’s hopes in South Africa are in serious danger of missing the round of 16 cut.

Didier Drogba and company presently sweat uncomfortably in third place in Group G with a solitary point and a Portuguese win (especially a thumping one) against North Korea at Green Point Stadium on Monday just about blows them out of the water.

The once Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, of course, have already bowed out early with successive defeats in Group E, which is a depressing thought for patient Cape Town fans who have seen some turgid games thus far and will now only get to see their “dead rubber” encounter with Holland on Thursday.

South Africa and Nigeria cling to the tournament by severely frayed threads and will probably each have been put out of their misery by close of play on Tuesday.

Algeria remain bottom of Group C but nevertheless have a better chance than that duo of progressing.

If they can beat the United States in Pretoria on Wednesday (both sides held under-performing England to draws, remember) and Slovenia beat or even hold Steven Gerrard’s side in Port Elizabeth, they will sneak through in second.

Ghana are presently the best-placed African team, as they head Group D. But even their situation is precarious: if they lose to Germany in their final encounter in Johannesburg on Wednesday, and Serbia get a good enough result against Australia in Nelspruit, the Black Stars will also bid the event farewell.

It is not as if they have actually set the World Cup alight, either: they relied on a late, moment-of-defensive-madness penalty to beat Serbia at Loftus and then were disappointingly held 1-1 by the Aussies.

It is Ghana’s marvellous, flamboyant fans who have enriched the World Cup more than the players themselves thus far.

Ominously for Ghana, Germany losing their second match to Serbia will have been a big wakeup call for the European powerhouse, and they will hardly lack zest for the vital encounter.

So a complete African shutout from the knockout stages is a depressing possibility, and would signal a perplexing step backwards for football on the continent.

In 2006 Ghana were the lone African flag-carriers to the round of 16, although they were snuffed out quickly 3-0 by Brazil.

Four years earlier, Senegal at least gave the continent something to collectively smile about by reaching the quarter-finals, an unprecedented achievement, before being edged out by Turkey.

The only other time Africa has reached the last eight was in 1990, the year of Roger Milla and the iconic Cameroonian team.

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for African soccer, but there have been too many false dawns in the two decades since and the 2010 World Cup, as things stand, is proving no exception to a worrying trend.

It is true that there were some highly controversial moments in the Ivory Coast’s reverse to Brazil on Sunday, but the cold fact remained that they were trailing 3-0 before a late rally and being outplayed in most departments as the world’s “sexiest” team by reputation lifted their game to impressive levels in the second half.

And the losing side’s Kader Keita brought some untimely dishonour to African soccer with his theatrical collapse in a heap, clutching his head, after an innocuous prod to his chest from Kaka that led to a second yellow card and wholly unjust banishment for the Brazilian pin-up.

Hello Africa, tell me how ya doin’? The truth is, not great.

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