With only the first round of matches concluded in the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Africa’s five representatives are already gasping for breath as they face early exit from the world championship.
Out of seven matches played so far by African teams in Qatar, only the Terranga Lions of Senegal have recorded a win. They bounced from their opening day loss to Netherlands to beat the host nation and whipping boys of Group A, Qatar 3-1 to brighten their chances of progressing in the tournament.
Although they managed to record an inspiring 0-0 draw against Denmark in their opening match of Group D, Tunisia failed to take a big step towards the round of 16 yesterday when they lost 0-1 to Australia who displayed more hunger. The slim loss has truly put Tunisia’s chances in great jeopardy because their final group match will be against the reigning World Champions France. France had beaten Australia 4-1 and Denmark 2-1 to send a strong message of intent to their rivals. It will take a miracle, not just a miracle, but a special one for Tunisia to beat France to stand any chance of qualifying as best losers in the group. So, mathematically, by failing to secure at least a point against the Aussies, the North Africans have kissed Qatar bye.
The other North African team, Morocco also fought hard to draw 0-0 with last edition’s runners-up Croatia in the opening match of Group F but they have a mountain to climb today as they face the number two team in the world Belgium in their second group match.
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It is a must win for Morocco but playing against Belgium, a star-studded team that is desperate to better its record in 2018 is not going to be easy for the Africans. If they are to withstand Belgium, then they must be ready to bring out their A game. Only an extraordinary performance can give them a chance against the likes of Kelvin De Bruyne, Michy Batshuayi, Eden Hazard, Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans and Toby Alderweireld. And most importantly, they must be ready to shoot with accuracy to beat Thibaut Courtois, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. However, Morocco too can draw inspiration from the fact that Belgium struggled to win 1-0 win over Canada to leave Group B a bit open for all the contenders. But if Morocco fail to pick at least a point today, they can start to pack their bags.
For the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, it was a double tragedy as they didn’t only lose to Switzerland but the scorer of the goal that wrecked them is their son. As we all know, the goal scorer, Breel Embolo, is a Cameroonian by birth but he has chosen to play for his adopted country. In fact, even as he refused to celebrate his first World Cup goal, angry fans in Cameroon who felt betrayed by their son allegedly attacked his father’s house. But even if they pull down the whole country, the result will still stand so the Indomitable Lions must wake up and roar against Serbia tomorrow. Having lost their opening match, the Africans are walking a tight rope and their precarious situation is made worse by the fact that Serbia also lost 0-2 to the best team in the World Brazil. But even the Brazilians didn’t find life easy against the Serbians as it took the individual brilliance of Richarlson in the dying minutes to subdue their resilient opponents. What this means is that the Lions of Cameroon are faced with an uphill task.
And Nigeria’s next door neighbours, the Black Stars of Ghana, also failed at the first hurdle in the hands of one of the tournament favourites, Portugal. The Ghanaians who stopped the Super Eagles from reaching Qatar put up a good fight but a combination of questionable officiating and poor finishing robbed them of a share of the spoils. It was a nervy finish as the Black Stars pushed hard for a draw. Since there is no need crying over spilled milk, the Stars must try to shine brighter as they battle South Korea tomorrow in their second group match. A win will give the Ghanaians the motivation to face Uruguay in the final group match. However, if they fail against the Koreans who had battled Uruguay to a standstill in their match, then they too can begin to shop preparatory to their journey home.
Although much was expected from the five African representatives, almost all have failed to justify the clamour for more World Cup slots for the continent. At the moment, only Senegal still have a chance to progress in the tournament. The fate of the remaining four teams is hanging in the balance. So far, they have failed to bring joy to the continent.
This is indeed a worrisome development because many of us had hoped that at least two out of the five teams would break the semi-finals jinx. It is on record that since the inception of the World Cup 92 years ago, only Cameroon and Senegal have reached the quarter-finals in 1990 and in 2002. They both achieved this feat when they made their debut appearances.
The Black Stars came so close to breaking the semi-finals jinx in 2010 when Africa hosted the World Cup but were illegally stopped by Uruguay. Ghanaians are yet to forgive Luis Suarez for their mishap in South Africa.
As things stand, there is nothing to suggest that Africa will celebrate at the end of proceedings in Qatar. The continent is now waiting with bated breath as Morocco, Cameroon and Ghana seek favourable results in their second group matches to stay alive. If they falter again and the Lions of Senegal survive in the hands of Ecuador, the reigning African champions might be left alone to carry the huge expectations of the whole continent.