Can an African team make World Cup history in Russia?
Mohamed Salah (Getty)
Johannesburg - With the beginning of the Soccer World Cup less than three weeks away, football pundits have started predicting which team will be crowned champions.
Residents of Africa will be crossing their fingers that at least one of their five representatives – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal – makes it past the quarter-finals.
This stage has eluded them since 1934, when Egypt became the first African country to take part in the global event.
To date, only three African countries have reached the quarter-final stage. Cameroon became the first in 1990, followed by Senegal in 2002 and then Ghana in South Africa.
It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack to try and find a Ghanian who can forgive Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez for denying their country the dream to reach the semi-finals in 2010 at FNB Stadium.
The game was in extra time when Suárez deliberately handled a goal-bound ball, with the score reading 1-1.
The continent watched with dismay as Ghana skipper Asamoah Gyan’s resultant penalty kick bounced off the crossbar. Ghana lost the match 4-2 on penalties.
The question now is, what are the chances of any of the five countries representing this continent going all the way and making history?
With national hero Mohamed Salah having not only done a fantastic job for English Premier League side Liverpool, scoring 44 goals in all competitions (excluding yesterday’s Champions League final), but also spearheading his country’s qualification for the Cup, anything is possible.
But it will need more than one superstar in any team to go far in this tournament.
If having one world beater was enough, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi could have long won the World Cups multiple times.
Third-time qualifiers, the Pharaohs, are drawn in a less tough Group A with Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia.
The team’s defensive approach saw them concede just four goals and score eight in the qualifiers.
They lost only once, won four and drew one game. They will rely on Salah to find the back of the net and veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary to help them progress to the next round.
The six-time qualifiers have promising stars led by captain John Obi Mikel. They qualified without losing a game, collecting 14 points in the process.
They will face old enemies in Group D, including Argentina, to whom the Super Eagles have lost four times in World Cup matches.
But after beating Messi’s team in November in a friendly, they will be hoping for an upset.
Iceland and Croatia are less threatening.
If they can get their house in order, Nigeria can be the team to carry Africa’s hopes. They have a lot of European-based players, including Chelsea star Victor Moses, who can help them reach great heights. Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi will also add value.
Returning to the World Cup after a 20-year absence, the Carthage Eagles have a physical defence, but rely more on teamwork as they do not have individual stars.
In Group B with Ronaldo’s Portugal and 2010 World Cup champions Spain, it will be a tough mountain to climb.
Whether they’ll have enough quality to progress over England or Belgium is a tough call. Despite their great play, Tunisia’s chances are slim. The other team in Group G is Panama.
They captured the hearts of the world when they had an unbelievable run in 2002 in Korea/Japan.
As the highest ranked African nation in position 23 on the Fifa world ranking, they will have confidence and will push to go further.
The Lions of Teranga will pin their hopes on Liverpool star Sadio Mané.
They are with Poland, Columbia and Japan in Group H.