Tunisia, Senegal aim to turn things around for Africa
VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AP) — African teams have so far lost three matches from three starts at the World Cup in Russia. It's now up to Tunisia and Senegal to get the continent's teams back on track.
Luckily for those willing Africa on, both teams have a heritage they can draw on.
Tunisia will forever have a starring role in the history of African football, having recorded the continent's first win in a World Cup in 1978 when it beat Mexico 3-1. Senegal beat then world champion France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, and eventually reached the quarterfinals.
The problem for Tunisia is that the national team has not done much since causing a stir 40 years ago in Argentina. In the three World Cups it has contested since then, Tunisia still hasn't notched a second victory. After meeting England on Monday in Volgograd, Tunisia then takes on Panama, playing in the World Cup for the first time, followed by heavily fancied Belgium.
Senegal, playing in its first World Cup since 2002 when it just failed to make the semifinals after losing to a "golden goal" in extra-time against Turkey, has fairly tricky matches. After taking on Poland on Tuesday in Moscow, its ensuing Group H opponents are Colombia and Japan.
"The groups have landed badly for Africa," Ian Hawkey, the author of the award-winning 2010 book 'Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African football,' told The Associated Press.
The luck of the draw is clearly part of the story, but there is a sense that African teams have stagnated on the sport's biggest stage, a sense that's only grown after Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria lost their opening games in Russia.
Four years after Tunisia's breakthrough, Algeria beat West Germany 2-1 in the 1982 World Cup in Spain in what remains one of the most shocking results in the history of the tournament. West Germany's coach Jupp Derwall later revealed that his players were so confident that they refused his suggestion that they watch some recordings of The Desert Warriors prior to their encounter.
Even though Algeria failed to qualify for the next round after West Germany and Austria "contrived" a result that saw both teams progress, nobody would again make the mistake of under-estimating a team from Africa.
In 1986 in Mexico, an African team finally reached the second round when Morocco topped a group that also included England, Poland and Portugal. West Germany needed a late winner to get past The Atlas Lions.
And then, in 1990 in Italy, Cameroon went one further, making it to the quarterfinals where it met England. In fact, the Indomitable Lions were just seven minutes from making it to the final four before Gary Lineker got England level with a penalty. Another spot-kick from Lineker in extra-time brought to an end one Cameroon's campaign.
STATE OF STAGNATION
And then, well, not much progression. Senegal nearly reached the semifinals in 2002 and Ghana was clearly unlucky not to do so in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa after Uruguay's Luis Suarez used his hands to keep out Dominic Adiyiah's goal-bound header in the final minute of extra-time. Asamoah Gyan hit the bar on the ensuing penalty, and Ghana went on to lose the penalty shootout.
In Brazil in 2014, no African team made it beyond the round of 16 and barely a few days into this World Cup there are concerns that none may actually make it out of the group stage.
JUST A COINCIDENCE?
Many would argue that in knockout football, that's just the way it is and if it weren't for Suarez, this discussion would not be taking place.
But, it's also a widely held view that African teams are underperforming and the reasons given for that are varied and complex. Some argue coaches are changed too quickly, others that quality players leave home too soon.
"To be successful at the World Cup, you need to have a viable and strong domestic structure," Hawkey said. "There's a dependence on economic clout and while there are a lot of Africans do well (in the big leagues), there's not enough of them. And what there is not is a strong domestic structure in Africa."
Africa's football authorities are aware of this and that's largely why the African Nations Championship has been established. It is the continent's No. 2 national team tournament after the African Cup of Nations and is contested by teams made up of home-based players only.
"It has made the pool of selectable players higher," Hawkey said.
Many of the Tunisian team, for example, is made up of players from the African leagues.
And how they'd like to match the achievement of that team 40 long years ago and register another win — particularly against England.
"It's a World Cup game, and in one game, anything can possibly happen," said Tunisia defender Yohan Benalouane.