Egypt, returning to the Mundial for the first time since 1990, will be the first African team in action when they confront Uruguay on Friday as the 2018 FIFA World Cup began in Russia on Thursday, 14th June.
The last African match at the World Cup was Algeria’s ouster to Germany at the Round of 16 on June 30, 2014. France had earlier that day sent the Super Eagles of Nigeria packing, falling to two un-replied goals by Paul Pogba and Captain Joseph Yobo, who scored against his own team.
No African country has ever reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup since its first edition in 1930.The pain of 2010 is still fresh on African minds, eight years down the line. With the World Cup party hosted on African soil for the very first time, many thought Africa would emulate Asia, who hosted the mundial for the first time in 2002 and broke their jinx, with South Korea getting to the semi-finals.
And it almost turned out right, with one penalty kick from Ghanaian striker, Asamoah Gyan, separating Ghana and Africa from a semi-final place (after Uruguay’s Luis Suarez had committed a foul, stopping a goal-bound header from Dominic Adiya with his hands, and getting sent-off in the process). But the Ghanaian skipper missed it, and his team lost the resultant penalty shoot-out.
Egypt became the first African team to participate in the World Cup in 1934 in Italy, and bowed out without a win. Africa went on to record its first victory in the FIFA World Cup 44 years later, in 1978, when Tunisia defeated Mexico 3-1.
Morocco advanced to the Round of 16, taking Africa to that stage for the first time in 1986. They had recorded two draws against Poland and England, but went on to beat Portugal 3-1 in the last group match. They would go on to lose 0-1 to West Germany in the second round.
In 1990, Cameroon got to the quarter-finals for the first time, after Roger Milla scored two extra-time goals against Colombia in the Round of 16. The Indomitable Lions would go no further than that, losing 2-3 to England at extra time.
Senegal also got to the quarter-finals in 2002, but fell to a golden goal by Turkey in extra time. They had a good outing at the finals which included a shock 1-0 victory over defending champions France in the opening match and a golden-goal win against Sweden in the second round.
Nigeria and Algeria however have the Round of 16 as their best outing so far at the FIFA World Cup, with Algeria falling short to Germany in 2014, and the Super Eagles failing on three attempts in 1994, 1998 and 2014, to qualify for the quarter-finals. They lost to Italy, Denmark and France respectively.
With five teams representing Africa in 2018, one wonders whether luck will shine on Africa, taking the continent to the last four for the first time ever.
There is a possibility of two African countries meeting at the Round of 16 or quarter-finals. Egypt, the most successful national team on the African continent, Morocco, who won every match in their qualifiers without conceding a goal, and Nigeria, who make a sixth appearance at the finals, are in Groups, A, B and D respectively. Tunisia, returnees after their last outing in 2006 and Senegal, who makes their second appearance at the World Cup finals, have their slots in Groups G and H respectively. Given that anything is possible in football, two of these sides can meet in the first two knockout stages, and victory can guarantee a place in the semi-finals for the first time.
It should however be recalled that in 1998, Morocco, Cameroon, South Africa and Nigeria were in Groups A, B, C, and D respectively with only Nigeria advancing to the Round of 16 (following Tunisia’s ouster from Group G).
In 2002, Senegal and South Africa were in Groups A and B respectively, with Cameroon, Nigeria and Tunisia camped in Groups E, F and H. Only Senegal scaled the group stage, and got to the quarter-finals.
In 2006, Cote d’Ivoire and Angola were in Groups C and D respectively. Ghana, Togo and Tunisia were in Groups E, G and H. Only the Black Stars of Ghana made it to the Round of 16, and fell to Brazil.
In 2010, with six African teams in the competition, Ghana alone got to the quarter-finals.
And in 2014, Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire got Groups A and C, and Nigeria, Ghana and Algeria were camped in Groups F, G and H. The Super Eagles of Nigeria and Desert Foxes of Algeria got to the second round, and crashed out there.
So the arithmetic of a possible meeting based on the group they have found themselves may not visible, seeing that these groups also have the presence Uruguay, Portugal, Spain, Argentina and Belgium.
Africa however hopes luck will shine this time, 88 years after the first edition.