The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins Thursday in Russia and 32 nations will be vying for the planet’s biggest soccer prize.
Africa will be represented by five countries – Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
The teams have been put in fairly competitive groups and will be aiming to go one step further than the quarter final finish recorded by Cameroun (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) when the tournament kick off with the opening match between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia at the magnificent Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
HAMED SHOBIYE, Assistant Editor, Online, x-ray the chances of Africa’s five representatives in Russia.
The seven-time African champions will be featuring in the premium soccer tournament for the first time since 1990. The Pharaohs unexpectedly saw off the challenge of group E favourites Ghana’s Black Stars to secure the ticket for Russia.
The Argentinian- born Hector Cuper has put together a cohesive unit that will ruffle few feathers in a simple looking group A comprising the hosts, two-time world champions Uruguay and Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia.
Regarded as poor travelers, the Egyptians are expected to break their age-long hoodoo of not going beyond the group stage in major soccer tournaments by picking one of the group’s second round tickets alongside Uruguay.
In their previous two appearances in FIFA World Cup, the North African powerhouse record of two draws and two defeats in 1934 and 1990 in Italy make them one of the poorest sides in the history of the tournament.
Coach: Hector Cuper
The blonde Argentine was in charge of the great Valencia side that dazzled the world with its refreshing brand of football at the beginning of the millennium.
He led the side that included Gazka Mendieta, Claudio Lopez, Ariel Ortega and Joeslyn Angloma to successive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Before that, he led the unheralded Spanish side, Mallorca to a second place finish in the now rested European Winners’ Cup in 1999.
Cuper’s stint with Inter Milan was not very successful, but his recent exploits with Egypt has cemented his place as one of world’s top coaches.
Key PLAYER: Mohamed Salah
The reigning African Player of the Year is the man carrying the hopes of millions of Egyptians in this year’s tournament.
The Liverpool star scored 46 goals across all competitions last season and his form will determine how far the Pharaoh will go in this year’s World Cup.
The Egypt’s talisman is one of few players expected to light up the tournament in Russia.
Morocco was the first African team to progress beyond the group stage in FIFA World Cup.
The Jose Faria’s tutored side that included stalwarts like Aziz Bourdebala, Mohammed Timoumi, El-Zaki Badou, Abdulrazaq Khairi and Merry Krimau stunned the global soccer audience by finishing top of group E ahead of England, Poland and Portugal in the 1986 tournament held in Mexico.
The team lost to eventual runners up West Germany by 0-1 in the second round.
The Moroccans are playing in their first World Cup since 1998.
In France, the Atlas Lions refreshing brand of football captivated the watching world and came agonizingly close to sealing a second round ticket behind the defending champions Brazil in group F.
The current generation led by Juventus defender, Mehdi Benatia, picked the group C ticket ahead of West African giants Ivory Coast on the last day of African zone qualifiers. The Moroccans stunned the star –studded Ivoirians at their Abidjan cauldron with 2-0 victory and sealed a fifth appearance in FIFA’s premier soccer tournament.
The Coach: Herve Renard
The shrewd Frenchman has carved a niche for himself as a top class coach with two AFCON victories under his belt.
Henard, who worked with Claude Le Roy during the latter’s stint with Ghana, has transformed the Atlas Lions into one of the most formidable teams on the continent.
The team scored eight goals and conceded none in the last round of African zone qualifiers. The fine blend of youth and experience in midfield and attack make the Atlas Lions a dangerous dark house in Russia.
However, no one is giving the North African giants any chance of surviving a dangerous looking group B comprising two European heavyweights in the shape Portugal and Spain.
But finishing ahead of Iran in third place will be a huge success for the former African champions in Russia.
Key Player: Mehdi Benatia:
The towering Juventus defender is a pillar of sort for the Atlas Lions. His defensive qualities and inspirational leadership will be very important in Russia where the Moroccans will come up against one of the greatest strikers on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo.
When the draws for the African zone final round qualifiers took place in June 2016, no one expected the Super Eagles to pick the group B sole ticket ahead of Cameroun, Algeria and dangerous dark horse Zambia.
Nigeria surprised pundits by qualifying for its sixth World Cup with a match to spare in November.
The team started the group stage with a 2–1 win over Zambia in Ndola and defeated Algeria 3–1 in the second match at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo.
Super Eagles defeated Cameroon 5–1 home and away in a back- to- back contest and became the first African team to qualify for the World Cup after defeating Zambia 1–0 in Uyo.
The present team has drawn comparison with the great team of 1994 that included Austin Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, late Rashidi Yekini, late Thompson Oliha, late Stephen Keshi, Samson Siasia, Finidi George, Daniel Amokachie and Emmanuel Amuneke, with its refreshing brand of football.
The inspirational skipper Mikel Obi, Arsenal winger Alex Iwobi, Chelsea wingback Victor Moses and Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho are expected to pull the strings for Super Eagles in Russia.
Paired in a tough-looking group D alongside two-time world champions Argentina, 1998 bronze medalists Croatia and debutants Iceland, Nigeria is expected to slug it out with Croatia for the group’s second ticket for round of 16 behind the South American powerhouse.
Coach: Gernot Rohr
The Franco-German coach has surprised many with his organisation and technical ability since his appointment in 2016.
The ex-Bayern Munich defender has instilled discipline and organisation into a side that flattered to deceive in previous tournaments.
Key player: Mikel Obi
Regarded by many as the glue that holds the team together, the ex-Chelsea anchorman’s leadership qualities and tactical discipline are one of the key factors behind the Super Eagles recent success.
Russia 2018 may be Mikel’s last World Cup as he will be too old in 2022 when Qatar hosts the rest of the world.
The 2002 World Cup quarter finalists expectedly secured the group D’s sole ticket ahead of South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde.
The team has a fine collection of talented players plying their trade in top leagues in Europe and success in Russia will depend on how Coach Aliou Cisse harnesses the resources at his disposal.
Coach: Aliou Cisse:
The captain of the Senegalese squad to the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan has successfully moulded the current team in his own image. Determined, skillful and athletic, the current generation of Teranga Lions has been tipped to progress beyond the group stage alongside Colombia in a very open group H where all the teams have equal chances of picking the second round tickets.
Key player: Sadio Mane
The power playing Liverpool striker carries the hopes and expectations of soccer mad West African nation hoping for repeat of the 2002 exploits in Far East.
Sane alongside veteran Moussa Sow are expected to provide the goals that will lift the 2002 AFCON runners up to glory in Russia.
However, anything short of second round ticket will be unacceptable to their compatriots back home in Dakar and other major cities in the country.
The Tunisians are regarded as the weakest of the five African representatives in Russia.
The Carthage Eagles was the first African team to win a World Cup match after defeating Mexico 3-1 in the 1978 tournament held in Argentina.
But since that famous night in Buenos Aires, Tunisia had played a total of 990 minutes at the World Cup without victory.
Russia 2018 will be the North African giant’s fifth appearance in FIFA World Cup and has never progressed beyond the group stage in four previous participations in the quadrennial tournament.
During the qualifiers, the former African champions made hard work of a very easy group that included DR Congo, Guinea and Libya and only secured qualification after a nail-biting scoreless draw at home against already eliminated Libya on the last day of the African zone preliminaries.
Paired with England, Belgium and debutants Panama in group G, the Tunisians are expected to exit the tournament in the first round.
However, a third place finish ahead of the inexperienced Panama will be a huge morale booster for the perennial Africa underachievers.
Coach: Nabil Maaloul
The former Tunisian international cemented his reputation as top coach in his homeland after steering the team to fifth World Cup qualification ahead of the much-fancied DR Congo.
But the team performance in Russia where Maaloul will pit his wits against England’s Gareth Southgate, Belgium’s Roberto Martinez and Panama’s Hernan Dario Gomez will determine how far he has progressed as a tactician.
Key player: Wabhi Khaziri
Khaziri, the on loan Rennes hitman, is the makeshift striker with Tunisia’s hopes on his shoulders.