Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Africa at the World Cup

    Last week on this site Matthew Monk made a remarkably bold prediction: no African team will advance to the second round at Korea/Japan. I disagree -- and I'll say why later on -- but his analysis of Africa's failures is excellent, and worth a closer look. In this column I'd like to expand on his arguments in the context of World Cup history, and try to suggest what we might expect in Africa's future, both at Korea/Japan and beyond.

    Matthew argues that there are two reasons Africa has only sent one team to the quarterfinals in its history. The first is money: most African countries simply don't have the resources to pour into football to build an infrastructure capable of supporting a run at the World Cup. No question, he's right. To become a world soccer power, you have to be able to develop your young talent and give them the chance to form a cohesive unit, and that takes money, mostly from wealthy clubs and federations. For the most part the African teams that have managed to qualify for the finals are either relatively affluent North African nations (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt), or developed sub-Saharan nations (Zaire, Nigeria). South Africa, richest of all, qualifies regularly now that the apartheid ban has been lifted. The notable exception here is Cameroon, not a particularly large or wealthy country. They compensate by being absolutely football-mad, and centering a great deal of their culture on the game. (Simon Kuper's book "Football Against the Enemy" has an excellent chapter on football in Cameroon.) With the increase in African berths to 5, smaller countries will become more likely to grab a space occasionally, and Senegal has done so this year. But the clear advantages, in Africa and elsewhere, belong to the richer countries.

    It would seem, then, that to advance far in the tournament, you need a more affluent society than most African nations can provide. But although money is important to World Cup success, the lack of wealth can be overcome. In 1994 one of the semi-finalists was Bulgaria; in 1998, Croatia. Neither of these countries is particularly wealthy (Morocco, who has bid to host the World Cup several times, is richer than both) and neither has a domestic league of any real quality. Yet although their presence in the semis was a bit of an upset, no one was terribly shocked when they went as far as they did. They had good players who played for good European clubs, and got the right results at the right times.

    I think this kind of performance is more likely to happen in the future, not less. The gap between the first and second tiers is narrowing, largely because of the wider internationalization of European club football. The Bulgarian success was largely credited to the fall of the Iron Curtain, allowing the best Eastern European players to participate in the top leagues. That's where the best player development takes place, where the raw talent becomes capable of winning championships. That's where representatives from the poorer countries get the resources that they don't have at home. As the 21st century begins, players from all over the world are regularly getting their chances in Europe, and in principle nothing will prevent African nations from duplicating the success of Bulgaria and Croatia.

    But principle and practice are two different matters, and Africans face problems that Bulgarians and Croatians don't. The most obvious is racism. Black African players, in particular, face a prejudice that makes it harder for them to retain places in their clubs. There are coaches who don't believe Africans can make the grade, and players and fans who just don't like people with different color skin. Even if they can convince the coaches of their talent and desire, African players are often forced to play in uncomfortable settings that impede them from doing their best. There's also the huge cultural divide between Africa and Europe. African players often find themselves unhappy in European societies, and that's another obstacle to full development of their skills. So it's harder for Africans than Eastern Europeans, and as long as these conditions persist, it will be harder for Africans to take full advantage of what Europe has to offer. That doesn't mean Nigeria or Cameroon won't someday make the semifinals, but it helps to explain why Bulgaria got there first.

    Matthew's second point is that Africa has been hobbled by poor coaching; in particular, they've contented themselves with third-rate European coaches, and failed to develop coaches of their own. In this matter African countries are at a huge disadvantage. They don't have the money to attract the top European or South American coaches, and their homegrown coaches (as opposed to the players, who can earn their wages elsewhere) can't grow tactically by pitting themselves against top competition.

    On the other hand, where coaches are concerned, there are courses for horses. Different coaches have different skills, and certain coaches will thrive better in certain settings. Bora Milutinovic, for whom Matthew reserves his worst strictures, is very good at one thing: taking lesser football nations to the point where they can compete at World Cup level. He probably can't take them any farther, but most of the time that's not his job. Nigeria 1998 was the first time he'd been asked to take a good team, and he failed badly. But he was a good choice for China in 2002. Other coaches are better with established teams: Carlos Alberto Parreira won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994, then flopped with Saudi Arabia in 1998.

    The problem, then, becomes finding the right type of coach to take you from being competitive to being a winner. Here too culture comes into play. Milutinovic is a chameleon, able to adapt anywhere in the world, and that's why he succeeds almost everywhere he goes. But even if they had the money to afford him, would Sven-Goran Eriksson fit in Cameroon? For a coach to succeed, he must not only be aware tactically, but be compatible culturally. The homeborn coaches have the natural cultural advantage, and would be logical choices if they had the chance to fulfill their tactical potential.

    On the other hand, it's not clear that tactical sophistication is the only way forward. Miroslav Blazevic of Croatia was not notably brilliant tactically, but he was a great motivator. With the African nations, who sometimes have an inferiority complex when confronting European opposition, it might be more important to have someone who can make players believe in themselves than someone who can draw the best diagrams. A European coach might be just as good as a homegrown coach in this regard.

    My own feeling is that the coaching choice, particularly for non-European nations, is a lottery. You pick someone and you take a chance. You really don't know what you'll get until you see him in action, and by then it's too late to change. African countries have indeed made a mistake in relying on recycled Europeans; I suspect it's mostly out of insecurity. You only get one chance every four years, and it's only human to prefer the devil you know. But at World Cup level, the line between success and failure is so fine that the smallest intangible can make the difference. It will take a genius or a very lucky man to spot the coach able to take Africa to the next level.

    So what's to do? History, as usual, is the only guide we have. Let's look, then, at Africa's history at the World Cup, and try to formulate some tentative conclusions about the way forward.

    Leaving aside Egypt in 1934, the first African representative was Morocco in 1970. They put up a decent showing, commensurate with their talent: they led West Germany at halftime before going down, lost soundly to Peru, and drew with Bulgaria. West Germany 1974, the great Zaire embarrassment, was a step back, perhaps the single worst performance by any team ever.

    But in 1978 things changed for good. The African representative was Tunisia, and I have no hesitation in saying they were the best team in their group. They whipped Mexico in the first game; they outplayed Poland in the second game, losing 0:1 on a defensive error; they then similarly outplayed West Germany, getting a 0:0 draw that flattered the Germans. They weren't a great team -- they had a fine midfield, but lacked striking power -- but they were consistently better than their opposition. So why didn't they advance? Luck played a role, but I think more important was a lack of confidence, or a lack of ambition. Had they beaten the Germans in the final game, they would have advanced to the next round. But I still remember the shocking sight of the Tunisians passing the ball around casually in the final minutes, content with a draw. A draw against the Germans -- what an achievement! It seemed that was all they had come for, and qualification was just too much to realistically consider.

    In 1982 there were two African representatives, Algeria and Cameroon. The case of Algeria is unique: they won 2 out of 3 games, but were frozen out of the second round by the Austria-West Germany fix. Few doubted they deserved to advance. But Cameroon was done in by the same lack of ambition that beset Tunisia. While following the African Nations Cup this year, I read a retrospective in one of the Cameroon on-line newspapers on the 1982 team. One of the coaches conceded that the team had gone out hoping only to draw, and draw they did, all three games. Two were scoreless draws, in which they held off Poland and Peru with ease. The third draw was perhaps the most telling: against Italy, the teams were scoreless until the 60th minute, when Italy scored after keeper N'Kono slipped. So what happened? Against Italy, the greatest of all defensive teams, the team impossible to catch up against, the team that would win the World Cup that year, Cameroon came back to tie the score -- in the very next minute! They had the talent; they didn't have the ambition. They finished third in their group, and went out on goals scored.

    In 1986 there were again two teams, Algeria and Morocco. Algeria, in a very strong group with Brazil and Spain, were outclassed. Morocco, matched with England, Poland, and Portugal, won the group outright, the first African team to do so. But they did so cautiously, playing scoreless draws with Poland and England, and only turning loose in the third game against Portugal, when it appeared they might need a win to advance. There they won impressively, 3:1. Then, before the second round game with West Germany, their coach, Jose Faria, was quoted as follows: "Lots of people expected us to lose, and lots of people lost because of that. We are the first team from the Third World to win its group. We could go home now. It is just one big party for us. It's as if we have already won our title." And so, in the draining heat of Monterrey, Morocco went out and played for penalty kicks. It was a dreadful game, decided by a Lothar Matthaeus free kick in the 89th minute. But against a very ordinary German side, Morocco had never tried to win it. Like Tunisia, like Cameroon, they didn't believe in themselves.

    In 1990 came the breakthrough, or seemingly so. The two African representatives were Egypt and Cameroon. Egypt opened with a well-deserved 1:1 draw with Holland, then completely shut down against Ireland, playing for a 0:0 draw, which they duly got. They were slightly less negative against England, but not much, and went down 0:1. In one of the most sterile groups in World Cup history, they might very well have advanced, if they'd had the courage.

    And then there was the big success, Cameroon. In fact -- and again I say this with no hesitation -- for most of the tournament, the Cameroonians weren't a very good team. They were just a very lucky one. First of all, they had the good fortune to land themselves in the most negative World Cup of all time, when just about nobody had much desire to play football. Cameroon played their part in this as well. Their midfield showed some flair, but they played some of the roughest and most destructive football the World Cup had ever seen. And their success had little to do with whatever skill they did show. In the opening game, against a dreary Argentina, Cameroon won 1:0 on a dreadful mistake by Neri Pumpido, the Argentine keeper. Their second game was against Romania, another dull affair that was headed for a 0:0 draw. Then in the 76th minute, on a completely harmless long ball, Roger Milla blatantly pushed a Romanian defender. But there was no whistle, and he went in unopposed for the first goal. Romania had to come forward, and Cameroon got a second 3 minutes from time, holding on to win 2:1.

    With two wins, both remarkably unimpressive, Cameroon had already advanced to the second round. So they barely bothered to show up against the USSR -- and were crushed 0:4, never once looking competitive. They remain to this day the only team ever to win their group with a negative goal difference. And they had done so with one lucky goal and one that shouldn't have counted, and very little play worth the name.

    Then came the Round of 16, and the worst game yet. The opponent was a mediocre Colombia, who themselves had only advanced as a third-place team, and only because of an injury-time equalizer against the unmotivated Germans. But Cameroon, on the verge of the greatest achievement in African football history, played scared and tentative, and when Colombia replied in kind, the result was 90 of the most stultifying minutes in football history. Then extra time came, and it was if the players suddenly realized the quarterfinals were in reach. Both teams played exciting football, and Roger Milla scored a fine goal to put Cameroon up. The second goal came on Rene Higuita's famous piece of suicide, and Cameroon, having shown almost nothing over four games, were in the quarterfinals. It was one of the most notable flukes in World Cup history.

    But once over the hump, once realizing they could actually win at this level, Cameroon broke loose, and forged the legend of the Indomitable Lions. Against England, in the finest match of the tournament, they were magnificent. Down 0:1 against the run of play, they came from behind in the second half, and with 8 minutes to go, they were deservedly up 2:1. But they couldn't hold it, giving up a penalty to Lineker, and then another in extra time.

    Why did they lose? Just about everyone thought that it was a lack of discipline, and I agree. In his article, Matthew Monk largely discounts this factor, saying, quite correctly, that there are naive and undisciplined players all over. But as football writers never tire of telling us, a nation's football team reflects its culture. It's no secret that most European cultures traditionally rely much more heavily on organization and discipline than African cultures do. That's not in dispute. It should thus come as no surprise that Cameroon played with more flair, England with more discipline, and that Cameroon apparently didn't know how to hold a lead at this level. It's wrong to call it a lack of "strength and resolve," as Matthew notes, but it's a natural effect of a culture that doesn't put a premium on organization.

    I think 1994 supports this position. There were three African representatives that year. Morocco was outclassed by Holland, Belgium, and a surprising Saudi Arabia. Cameroon opened with a solid 2-2 draw against Sweden. They then folded up, losing to Brazil 3-0 and Russia 6-1. At the time most observers put the collapse down to internal problems, particularly disputes with the federation over money. This is a classic African scenario, which seems to repeat itself year after year. Both Liberia and Senegal were embroiled in money disputes right up until the start of this year's Nations Cup. Again, it's a lack of organization -- the sort of thing that European nations rarely tolerate.

    And then there was Nigeria. With the example of Cameroon before them, they made no bones about their ambition to go far in the tournament. They lost their opener 1:2 to Argentina, after which coach Clemens Westerhof predicted they'd go farther in the tournament than the team that had just beaten them. They then beat Bulgaria 3:0 with a superb display, and led Greece 1:0 when word arrived that a second goal in injury time would mean they'd win the group. So Daniel Amokachi went out and scored it -- no lack of talent or ambition there!

    In the round of 16, they faced Italy. Not just any team, but Italy, with one of the greatest of World Cup pedigrees. Nigeria scored early, and looked like winners throughout, but gave up the tying goal 2 minutes from time. Nigeria lost it, as Cameroon had against England, because they didn't know how to hold a lead. Again, that's discipline and organization, and as Ruud Doevendans has eloquently described on this site, Westerhof clearly wasn't the man to supply their natural deficiencies in that regard.

    And so to 1998. In the previous 3 World Cups, an African team had not only advanced to the second round, but won its group in doing so. Still, besides the group-winners, none of their other teams had come close to advancing. But in 1998, they not only had another group-winner (Nigeria), but two other teams that, if justice had been done, would have advanced to the second round as well. Cameroon was denied when a perfectly good goal that would have put them on top of Chile was disallowed. Morocco played some excellent football, and would have advanced if Brazil had bothered to show up against Norway in their final group game. Counting Nigeria's group win, it was Africa's best showing yet.

    But Nigeria...well, if ever Bora showed his inadequacy, it was there. I see their loss to Denmark, not to mention their loss to Paraguay, as yet another classic failure of discipline. They had already clinched the group after their first two games, and against Paraguay fell apart in the second half. No motivation. As for Denmark, just about everyone was looking ahead to the quarterfinal against Brazil, and clearly the Nigerians were too. They probably never expected the Danes to put up a fight, and were completely unprepared.

    In my view, then -- and I realize this is inevitably an oversimplification -- Africa's World Cup experience falls into three stages. The first is 1970-4, where a lack of talent kept them down. The second is 1978-1986, where the best teams had the talent, but lacked the ambition. The third is 1990-1998, where the best teams had the talent and the ambition, but lacked the discipline. Africa has advanced slowly, but they have advanced, and the 1990 Cameroon fluke obscures the fact that they're now doing better than ever.

    So now we come to 2002, and five African representatives. I'll take them one by one, and comment on their chances to advance to the second round. In group A, there's Senegal, in with France, Denmark, and Uruguay. They're modestly talented, with a couple of genuine stars; most of their players are in the French leagues, although not all are regulars. Their coach is a real dark horse: Bruno Metsu, a veteran of unfancied French clubs. Tactically he seems competent, nothing special, but as a motivator he's first-rate. The team has come together in a big way for him.

    Senegal will probably be low on ambition this summer; they look like the classic team that's just glad to be there. Their World Cup was the African Nations Cup, which they really wanted to win. They fell on penalty kicks in the final to Cameroon, but tellingly, back home they were still received as heroes. So now they're just along for the ride, and although their group isn't that tough -- Uruguay is mediocre, and Denmark is good but not great -- they may be a bit awed when the time comes to play. If they get the breaks, I think Senegal has the talent to advance, and I think they have the coach who can get the most out of that talent. But they may be content with a good showing, and that's not enough. I'd rate their chances as low.

    Next comes South Africa, in with Spain, Slovenia, and Paraguay. This group is easier than it looks. Paraguay was magnificent at France '98, and I'm a big fan of theirs, but their team is aging, and there may be chemistry problems with coach Cesare Maldini. Slovenia is a good team, but they're a debutante, and may not be emotionally ready for the big stage.

    Still, whether South Africa is ready to make the grade is doubtful. Talent-wise, they're probably a bit better than Senegal. But their coach is Carlos Queiroz, a typical European retread, and that doesn't bode well. On the other hand, they've just appointed native son Jomo Sono as technical director; he's a maverick, a motivator, and very popular with fans and players. He'll be a hands-on man, working right along with Queiroz. Since this is their second time around, South Africa will also have plenty of ambition. They didn't perform all that badly four years ago, either; although they were squashed by France, they drew with Denmark and Saudi Arabia. I'd still rate their chances as low, but better than they were a few weeks ago.

    Now to Tunisia, in the weakest of the groups, with Japan, Russia, and Belgium. Tunisia's really struggling right now; they seem to have made a commitment to coach Henri Michel, but the squad is likely to undergo a significant overhaul. The heart of the team is aging, and the youngsters don't look quite ready yet. The team as a whole is a bit short on European experience. Michel certainly knows what he's doing tactically, although as a motivator he may leave something to be desired (he ripped into the players for their poor results in Mali, for one thing). Four years ago he put together a good Moroccan team; this may be more of a challenge.

    One is tempted to rate Tunisia's chances as pretty low, but in a group this weak, everyone's in with a shout. After recent failures, the team wants desperately to advance, and if everything breaks right, they have the ability to do so. At France '98, with Henryk Kasperczak in charge, they were a bit unlucky: they played poorly against England, but outplayed Colombia before losing, and drew with Romania. With a more dynamic coach in place, I wouldn't count them out.

    As for Nigeria, they're up in the air. They've just appointed a new coach, Festus Onigbinde. He's a veteran coach and technical director who has a reputation for unorthodox methods and tactics. He's promised to clean house, getting rid of the stars who don't care about the team and/or are trying to run the show themselves. There's almost no way to evaluate the squad or the coach at the moment. We can assume they're going to be talented, but that's all. Whether it'll be enough in the Group of Death I don't know. Argentina looks hard to beat, but I think England may be a bit overrated just now. If Onigbinde can put together a characteristically strong Nigerian side, I'd rate their chances as moderate. This are still the guys that finished ahead of Argentina in 1994 and Spain in 1998.

    And finally to Cameroon. They're the champions of Africa, and here I have to disagree with Matthew Monk's assessment of the Nations Cup in Mali. It wasn't a very good tournament, but it was by no means a disaster. Scoring was very low, but it wasn't just ineptitude: the defenses were more organized than usual, and the pitches were pretty awful. The tournament picked up in the knockout rounds, where some fine football was played, particularly by Cameroon. They were brilliant against the hosts in the semifinals, and then outplayed a determined Senegal over 120 minutes, winning on penalty kicks.

    Overall, I was impressed with Cameroon. In fact, I think this may be their best team ever: lots of natural talent, plenty of experience at European clubs, and a nice balance of youth and maturity. And then there's the coach: Winfried Schaefer, longtime successful head man at Karlsruhe in the Bundesliga. A German for a French-speaking African team? You bet; in fact, the federation deliberately went for a German coach, citing -- you guessed it -- organization and discipline. They feel the same way I do: that the only thing preventing Cameroon from succeeding at top level is the kind of discipline that German coaches can provide.

    At the moment Schaefer appears to be an excellent choice. He brings more than Teutonic discipline; he brings plenty of spirit as well. In Germany he's known as "Wild Winnie," famed for his crazy displays on the touchline. He's also fiercely loyal to his players. He brought the Cameroon squad together for training sessions in Germany, and they responded most positively. Rigobert Song, the captain, has said it's really fun to play for Schaefer.

    So by my theories, anyway, you can't ask for more. A team with talent, a team that wants to go far, and a team committed to discipline. (They've even promised to get the financial bonuses settled early.) As for group E, Germany and Ireland are good, but neither is unbeatable. If Cameroon is really ready, they'll advance. And in the next round they'll face someone from group B: Spain, Slovenia, Paraguay, South Africa. I see no reason why an in-form Cameroon can't beat any of them.

    I'm generally a coward when it comes to predictions, but what the heck: I pick Cameroon to advance. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them in the quarterfinals, or even the semis. This is a big test for Africa; if Cameroon succeeds, you'll see a lot of people following their example. If not, well, e-mail me and I'll be glad to abase myself.



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