It is 80 years since James McCrae, a former Grenadier Guardsman and First World War veteran, sent 11 Egyptians out into a Neapolitan afternoon to take on Hungary to become the first Africans to play in a World Cup finals.
This afternoon against Mexico in the tropical heat of Natal, the coastal city named for Christmas by the Portuguese, Cameroon will begin Africa’s latest World Cup campaign with their dramatic quarter-final defeat by England 24 years ago remaining the high-water mark of a continent’s achievement.
Senegal, in 2002, and Ghana, in 2010, have since matched the “Indomitable Lions” but Pele’s oft-revisited prediction of an African success story is now 14 years overdue and there is little suggestion he will be belatedly proved right on his own soil.
Cameroon and Ivory Coast have squads that lean on ageing stars, Algeria a green one, while Ghana have a horrible draw, placed alongside Germany and Portugal.
Which leaves Nigeria; current African champions and favoured by a more encouraging group but with a squad that looks creaky at the back and out-of-form further forward.
There is not cause for widespread African optimism. In Fifa’s rankings their five representatives are all below Bosnia and Herzegovina, the side Nigeria will probably have to beat if they are to progress to the knockout rounds. Add the recent wide-ranging allegations of Qatari-linked corruption against some of those running the game across the continent, acknowledge the mess that South African football has become four years on from its historic hosting of the finals and it makes for grim times.
The off-field benefits of South Africa hosting the tournament continue to be debated (as they are rather more angrily in Brazil) but the fact the national federation is now $10m (£5.9m) in debt and has to submit accounts every six months to the nation’s sporting authorities is not the mark of a flourishing game. On the field the World Cup did nothing to kickstart a South African surge. They finished behind Ethiopia in qualifying. Egypt were limited by the country’s political turmoil and are not in Brazil either.
Their presence in 1934 was brief – a 4-2 defeat sent McCrae’s men back over the Mediterranean to think again – and another six editions of the tournament passed before a second African side took part. It was not until 1982, Cameroon’s first, that Africa had more than one finalist and it took intensive and sustained lobbying from Issa Hayatou, the long-time president of CAF, the African confederation, and the most high-profile of the Qatar accused (he denies all allegations of corruption), for Fifa to begin to play fair and allow five to qualify for France 1998.
No more than one African team has since made it out of the group stages in each tournament since; the impact, with a single notable exception, has been disappointing, particularly the early exits of Ivory Coast sides rich in promise in 2006 and 2010. Ghana are the exception. Four years ago only the hand of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez stopped them reaching the semi-finals. “It was a painful moment,” said Asamoah Gyan, who missed the resulting penalty. “For me, my family and the whole of Africa.”
If the last edition ended painfully this one has begun predictably. Cameroon arrived late in Brazil, the squad having refused to leave their hotel in Yaoundé as a protest against the size of the promised bonuses from the national federation. The federation caved in and has borrowed money to up the bonuses by some £7,000 a man. The players flew off to Brazil promised around £70,000 each. It is a familiar squabble.
“The only problem in Africa is our leaders, who do not respect us,” said Samuel Eto’o, who two years ago was banned from the Cameroon side for instigating a similar protest. “Until we are respected, other [continents] will never have any consideration for us.”
Poor governance of the sport is by no means a uniquely African issue. The pressing need to reform how football is run, and by whom, needs to begin at the top end of Fifa let alone within the corridors of CAF. But Eto’o’s point is well made.
The 33-year-old – still nine years younger than compatriot Roger Milla when he scored in the 1994 finals – remains an important figure on the pitch for his country as much as he is a powerful one off it. It is Cameroon’s seventh finals. Their sixth was miserable as they lost all three games in South Africa. Since Milla did for Colombia back in 1990 they have managed a solitary win in the finals. A 2-2 draw, with Eto’o scoring, against Germany last week gave an indication of what they can achieve. Under their German coach, Volker Finke, Cameroon are a compact side, anchored in midfield by Alex Song and Enoh Eyong. With games against Croatia and Brazil to follow today’s against Mexico a good start is essential.
Ivory Coast begin on Sunday against Japan. Group C also contains Colombia and Greece so reaching the second round for the first time is a realistic ambition on Didier Drogba’s international swansong. But a reputation as a collection of individuals persists. “They are the country that will always let you down,” is how Emmanuel Adebayor labelled them.
“They have got the best striker in Europe in Didier Drogba,” said Adebayor. “They have got the best midfielder today, Yaya Touré. But there’s no togetherness. They will be talking, laughing and enjoying themselves but, when the time comes, they will forget about their job. Everyone wants to be like a hero and that is what is killing Ivory Coast.”
Touré, battling to overcome a hamstring injury to play against Japan, presents a rather more united African front, espousing a desire to move the mission started by McCrae’s men all those years ago another step closer to fulfilment.
“I represent my country, but I also represent the continent of Africa when I play in Europe,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to try to achieve something big. When we play at the World Cup, any African will back any African team. Because we want to hear a different approach to African football. We want to hear that Africans can do well and Africans do well.”