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Thursday, June 10, 2010
African aspirations

Andrew Hush

The first World Cup to be held in Africa also plays host to a record six teams from the continent, though expectations that a team will finally fulfil Pele's prediction of an African victor have been doused of late. Injuries to key players like Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Didier Drogba have disrupted preparations, but with the continent caught up in World Cup fever, African teams are still to be feared. Below, Soccernet assesses the six teams hoping to beat Cameroon's record of reaching the quarter-finals in 1990. Algeria Algeria return to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986, having overcome arch-rivals Egypt in a play-off last November. Since then, however, the Desert Foxes have struggled for form and have won just three of their past eight matches, conceding 14 goals in the process. But given that Algeria were the first African nation to win a World Cup match against European opposition when, in 1982, they stunned West Germany 2-1, perhaps it is a good omen for them that their opening two games will see them take on two more opponents from that continent, Slovenia and England. Following that, it is USA in Pretoria. Experience certainly will not be an issue on the bench as, of all the managers in charge of African nations in the tournament, Rabah Saadane has been in his role the longest. The 64-year-old is currently in his fifth spell in charge of Algeria, having resumed the responsibilities in 2007. Saadane has plenty of talent at his disposal but will need to use all of his experience to guide his side through a tough group. Following Algeria's win against UAE on Saturday, he spoke of a need for improvement in their ball retention and finishing. Although their form in recent times has been inconsistent, Algeria have, nevertheless, demonstrated an ability to perform in big games. That they are in South Africa is due to their display, as heavy underdogs, against Egypt. Furthermore, Saadane's men were similarly unfancied in the quarter-final of this year's African Nations Cup, only to twice come from behind to defeat Ivory Coast. Cameroon Having missed out on qualification for the 2006 World Cup, the Indomitable Lions return to world football's top table with a squad capable of making an impact in a group which, on paper, will likely see three teams battle it out to join Netherlands in advancing to the second round. Cameroon's schedule may help them in their quest for qualification. In what is virtually a must-win game, Paul Le Guen's side open their campaign against Japan, before facing Denmark. Meanwhile, should Netherlands pick up maximum points in their opening two games, the Indomitable Lions may benefit from facing an opponent whose eyes are already looking ahead to the second round in their final game. Key to their hopes will of course be their star man, Samuel Eto'o. With the critical words of Roger Milla ringing in his ears, Cameroon's all-time leading scorer is under arguably more pressure than ever before to inspire his country. A red card against Portugal last week was further fuel for his critics but the Inter Milan man remains a class act and one that is capable of hitting form against defences that could offer him a number of opportunities. Eto'o aside, Le Guen has a wealth of talent at his disposal, meaning his greatest challenge may be to make the most effective use of it. An abundance of central defenders is complemented by a midfield in which Jean Makoun and Alex Song offer a formidable shield in front of the back four. That allows Achille Emana to supply a forward line that, in addition to Eto'o, could also feature Pierre Webo, Mohammadou Idrissou and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Ghana Ghana's hopes of reaching the knockout stages for the second straight World Cup were dealt a setback when Michael Essien was ruled out of the tournament, but, as big a blow as the loss of their skipper is, recent history suggests all is not lost for Black Stars. Milovan Rajevac's side reached the final of January's African Nations Cup despite Essien making just one substitute appearance in the group stage. So, can Ghana overcome the loss of their leader for the second time this year? Their draw means it will not be easy. Having been placed in a group with Italy, Czech Republic and USA in 2006, Ghana have, once again, been dealt a less than favorable hand, with Serbia, Australia and Germany lying in wait in South Africa. Rajevac has concerns in midfield as both Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah have had indifferent seasons at club level. Although Muntari collected three winners' medals, his role in the latter part of Inter Milan's campaign was peripheral, with just three starts coming from March onwards. Meanwhile, Appiah, who has been beset by injury problems, played just twice for Bologna. So impressive four years ago, Ghana fans will hope the midfield duo can rediscover their best form at the World Cup. The experience offered by Muntari and Appiah is complemented by potential in the rest of the squad. Eight of Ghana's squad will be 21 or younger when the World Cup begins while only seven will be 26 or older. Among the next generation of Black Stars is a quintet of players who were part of the group that lifted the Under-20 World Cup last October, including Dominic Adiyiah, the AC Milan starlet who scored eight goals in Egypt, and Andre Ayew, the son of Ghanaian legend, Abedi Pele. Ivory Coast Didier Drogba's broken arm has hit Ivory Coast's hopes of escaping a difficult group. However, although the Elephants' talisman may be restricted in South Africa, this remains a squad deep in talent that is capable of making an impact. The draw, which sees Sven-Goran Eriksson's side face Portugal, Brazil and North Korea, has not been kind to Ivory Coast. Four years ago, when faced with a similarly tough group, Ivory Coast fell behind, 2-0, in each of their opening two games against Argentina and Netherlands and could not recover. A good start against Portugal is crucial to their hopes of advancement this time around. The importance of Drogba's absence was highlighted when the Elephants squandered a host of chances in their final warm-up game against a Swiss second division club on Tuesday. The Chelsea man, whose scoring rate for his country sees him net every 1.5 games, will be determined to play a part, particularly as, at 32, this may be his last chance to shine on the game's biggest stage. With question marks over Drogba, Eriksson will look to the likes of Aruna Dindane, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho to pick up the attacking slack. However, just as important is a trio of veterans who play further back. The Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, anchor defence and midfield respectively while the role of Didier Zokora will be interesting. Nominally a central midfielder, the Sevilla man has recently been used by Eriksson as a centre half. Nigeria Third place in this year's African Nations Cup was not enough to keep Shaibu Amodu in his job as Nigeria manager, meaning that Lars Lagerback, who was in charge of Sweden at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, has had to quickly get to know his new charges. Six goals in six games in Angola was ammunition for the critics of Nigeria who bemoan the lack of flair in today's Super Eagles side. The creative spark was to have come from Jon Obi Mikel in South Africa but his absence due to injury places more responsibility on the shoulders of Peter Odemwingie, who was one of his country's better performers in the African Nations Cup in January. Coincidentally, Nigeria charmed the world on their World Cup debut in 1994 by winning a group that contained Argentina and Greece, countries that provide the opposition in the Super Eagles' opening two matches in South Africa. Nigeria complete their group campaign against South Korea. These historical echoes mean that bucking a trend will be uppermost in Nigeria's minds. In eight previous meetings with their group opponents, the Super Eagles have recorded just one win (v Greece at USA '94). Argentina, in particular, have been a bogey team. The Albicelestes triumphed in matches at the 1994 and 2002 World Cups, as well as in the final of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. South Africa With Carlos Alberto Parreira back at the helm, South Africa have renewed hope that they will be able to extend a record which has seen every host nation advance to the second round. The wily Brazilian has built confidence and fitness through an extended pre-tournament camp as well as a schedule of warm-up matches, most of which were played on home turf, which has been progressively more challenging. Playing the first match of the tournament also enables a team to take control of their group and, in what looks to be one of the most wide-open sections of the first round, that is precisely what South Africa will aim to do against Mexico. The hosts then play Uruguay before taking on France. If South Africa are to avoid a group-stage exit, Katlego Mphela must maintain the goalscoring form which has seen him emerge as an important man for Bafana Bafana in the last year. After showing spasmodic form over the first four years of his international career, Mphela has since found an impressive consistency and six goals in his past five internationals indicate that the 25-year-old is ready to elevate his game to an even higher level. South Africa will also be encouraged by the fact that patriotic fervour has been building in the host nation and is set to manifest itself into a remarkable atmosphere on Friday at Soccer City, where 94,000 fans will witness the start of the tournament. Furthermore, playing each of their group games in venues at least 1,300m above sea level is a factor which South Africa hope will also offer a home advantage, especially against Uruguay and France.


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