Ever since the legendary Pele predicted in 1977 that an African country would win the World Cup by 2000, many people have agonized over why, 14 years on, the continent has not delivered, despite an abundance of talent.
There are many reasons for the failure. Essentially, the problems of African soccer come down to the fact that the game is run the way many African governments are run – with indifference, incompetence and corruption. Forget the public good. It is all about taking care of oneself.
Since Egypt first played in the World Cup in 1934, the best Africa has done is reach the quarter-finals. Cameroon did it in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
Ghana came close to making history in South Africa, only to be denied further advancement by the notorious Luis Suarez, who used his hand to stop a goal that would have put Ghana in the semi-finals.
Ghana missed the ensuing penalty kick to seal its fate, and Brazil 2014 was a step back as no African country even made it to the quarter-finals.
Africa is failing not for want of talent. The continent has produced some fantastic players who play in some of the best leagues and are household names around the world. Teams like Ivory Coast and Ghana are laden with stars but there is no team spirit.
They falter when it really matters. And they fail because of the poor leadership and corruption of people who run the game, the greed and indiscipline of the players and the short tenure of many coaches. One World Cup and they are gone. They just don’t stay long enough to perfect a winning system.
The big problem is that top officials running African football, going all the way to the continental federation, are often embroiled in corruption scandals that have a corrosive effect on the players.
In Brazil, Ghana’s top football official was snared in a match-fixing sting operation involving plans to fix friendly games. The same official badly botched the country’s World Cup preparation.
Poor organization left the players stranded at an airport for nine hours. Players lost equipment they needed for training. On the 12-hour flight to Brazil, the players rode in the cramped coach section, while the top official, his wife and children, enjoyed a comfortable ride in business class.
And in Brazil, players’ hotel rooms were flooded. One senior player described the World Cup preparation as “a nightmare from start to finish.” Back home after the Brazil misadventure, this official remains in charge. There is no accountability.
The players have their own demons, however. The indiscipline of African players is legendary. Many have been suspended at big tournaments for refusing team orders or abusing officials. The Cameroon team, for instance, threatened to not fly to Brazil in a dispute over bonuses.
It wasn’t the first time. The day before its crucial win-or-go-home game against Portugal, the Ghana players boycotted training, threatening a strike unless they got their bonuses. The government had to rush $3 million cash by chartered plane to Brazil for the players to avert a national calamity. And it is not as if these players are paupers. Needless to say Ghana lost the game.
In many parts of Africa, the days when wearing the national colours was a matter of great pride are gone. Now, it is all about money. When players see officials living large on their sweat, they demand their share or else. But there are exceptions.
The Algerian team reportedly donated its winnings to the people of Gaza. The Greece players refused any bonuses, saying they play for the people. And German midfielder Mesut Ozil used his winnings to pay for surgery for sick Brazilian children.
Until competent and less corrupt officials run African football, and pride is restored to wearing national colours, the continent will not win the World Cup. Time flies and Russia 2018 will soon be upon us. Can an African team win it all? It is possible, but I am not holding my breath.