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May 1, 2010

Home turf may not be enough

Latham By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

Regarding the chances of the African teams in this year's World Cup, you may have already heard some optimistic prognostication. Something along the lines of this:

Ivory Coast will be the first African team to make the semifinals, and perhaps even win the Cup on "home" soil. Ghana is ready to improve on its second-round performance last time out. Algeria is a dangerous dark horse. Host South Africa is sure to do better than expected.

With a record number of African teams participating in the first African World Cup in the year of African football, you'll have to forgive some observers for getting a little excited about the chances of the six teams representing the region. After all, this celebration is all about Africa, and rightfully so. An entire continent, passionate about its soccer, has waited a long time for this moment in the African sun. So why wouldn't bold predictions emerge to go with that environment?

Unfortunately, visions of glory for this year's African contingent don't necessarily coincide with on-field reality. In fact, the draw has the makings of a complete wipeout for the continent on the field. Even the best African teams face some stiff challenges to get to the knockout rounds, and most will likely fall at the group-stage hurdle.

It's even conceivable that this year, for the first time since 1982, there will be no African teams in the second round. Avoiding that collective nightmare scenario will depend on each individual nation's ability to overcome some shared challenges.

Common problem: group strength
Teams affected: South Africa, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria

The luck of the draw: From a pan-African perspective, the continent didn't have much this year. If the goal were to advance as many teams as possible to the group rounds, the best strategy would be placing the stronger teams in the weaker groups. At the December draw, the opposite happened. The teams generally recognized as the continent's best, with a serious shot of making some noise in South Africa, are faced with particularly challenging first-round opponents. Even the host -- usually safe from a killer draw -- was a victim.

As if the specter of early elimination for the home team weren't enough, the draw was particularly cruel to Africa's brightest hopes. Ivory Coast, the trendy pick to go deep into the tournament, thanks to a team full of top players in Europe's best leagues, looks to have gotten the worst of the luck. Sure, the Elephants have a ton of talent, but two of their Group G opponents have more. Faced with the professionalism and experience of Portugal and Brazil, it's hard to favor the Ivorians to advance.

Given the Elephants' problems, continental runner-up Ghana would be the next candidate to fly the flag for Africa. But the Black Stars are stuck in what is likely the most well-rounded group of all, and their chances of getting by Germany, Serbia and Australia, for reasons addressed below, look like less than even odds.

Experienced African sides Cameroon and Nigeria have it slightly better, though there's not an easy out in Group B or Group E. Nigeria's opponents -- Argentina, South Korea and Greece -- are hard to break down, and all are capable of seeing off the Super Eagles on any given day. That hasn't stopped bettors from making Nigeria a solid second in the group, though it's hard to fathom exactly why, or on what evidence Denmark is not preferred after Holland in Cameroon's Group E -- the Danes topped a European qualifying group that included Sweden and Portugal, while Cameroon struggled to edge out the likes of Togo and Gabon to qualify.

Which African side was favored in the draw? On paper, Algeria pretty clearly has the most favorable group of any of the African teams, needing to top the U.S. and Slovenia, behind England, for a second-round place. With that draw, the Algerians might just be the best bet of any African team to make the group stages -- which captures the problem in a nutshell. Speculation over how three-time defending African champion Egypt might have done in Algeria's place understandably infuriates fans of the Desert Foxes. (Algeria earned its World Cup ticket by beating Egypt in a hotly contested playoff match.) But that doesn't change the reasonable assessment that if it were instead the Pharaohs in Group C, they -- like several other African teams -- would be second to England as favorites to advance, and give Africa that much more hope of seeing a team go deep into the tournament. Algeria, instead, is a 4-to-1 long shot to get out of the group.

Common problem: lack of coaching continuity
Teams affected: Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa

In the dogfight to qualify for the second round, a properly timed substitution or personnel decision can make all the difference, which makes a coach with some tenure a must. The managers who get those decisions right are usually the ones with intimate knowledge and a long track record with their team, something two African contenders won't have in South Africa.

Despite a third-place finish at the African Nations Cup, Nigeria decided that four months ahead of the World Cup was a good time for a coaching change. The patient Shaibu Amodu was demoted, and a worldwide coaching search including all the available big-name candidates led to -- pause here for effect -- Lars Lagerback. Having failed to get his native Sweden to the 2010 World Cup, Lagerback will now lead the Super Eagles in South Africa.

As if to upstage the Nigerians, the Ivorian federation belatedly made their own coaching change with only three months to spare. Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, who had lost only once in two years at the helm of the Elephants, was shown the door, and a futile attempt to land Guus Hiddink was launched. In the end the Ivorians settled for Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose patchy track record doesn't reassure that the Ivorians can get the most out of their complicated World Cup puzzle.

Common problem: age and injuries
Teams affected: Cameroon, Ghana

In the wake of their performance at the ANC, there's a strong argument that Ghana is the most accomplished and perhaps best African team headed to the World Cup. A talent-laden midfield, along with the experience of having played their first World Cup, advancing to the second round four years ago, will go a long way toward boosting the Black Stars' chances.

All that would make the Ghanaians a smart money choice to outperform their African counterparts, but the Black Stars have run into some terrible luck with news that midfield general Michael Essien may not be ready for the World Cup. Essien is by far Ghana's best and most experienced player, and his potential absence turns the team from a favorite to advance alongside Germany in Group D into yet another African power staring at a group stage exit.

Given Ivory Coast's group conundrum and Essien's injury woes, many would next make Cameroon their best African bet, behind the exploits of Samuel Eto'o and a host of high-quality, Europe-based experienced pros. But along with much of Cameroon's base, Eto'o now seems to be past his prime, after doubts emerged from a lackluster performance at the ANC as to whether he can carry the team, or whether the aging defense can hold up against World Cup competition.

Common problem: concentration and consistency
Teams affected: Cameroon, Algeria

Concentration seems to be a serious issue for Cameroon as well. The Lions flirted with disaster in the group stage of the ANC before bowing out unimpressively in the quarters. No lapses will be forgiven in South Africa, where their first opponent, Japan, is sure to turn up ready out of the gates, and could spring a surprise which would ruin the Lions' chances.

The Algerians are another team that has seen serious fluctuations in their level of play. The Desert Foxes have a chance to surprise in South Africa, but to do that they'll need to put in some consistent performances. That's something that didn't happen in their hot-and-cold African Cup of Nations, when a mediocre opening round that included a drubbing at the hands of Malawi was forgotten only after the quarterfinal win over Ivory Coast.

Common problem: track record and history
Teams affected: Ivory Coast, Algeria

History and experience always have a role to play at the World Cup. Nigeria and Cameroon have something of a base to call upon, while Algeria has to go back nearly a quarter-century for its last World Cup appearance.

Like Ghana, Ivory Coast has just one World Cup appearance. And despite all the hype, the Ivorians haven't won anything during this golden generation of Ivorian football. Though widely regarded as the best team in Africa of late, the Elephants have always been a team less than the sum of its parts, and that lack of winning pedigree may trouble them again.

In fact, despite a general level of international respect for African soccer, the continent as a whole still has a pretty dismal World Cup record, even in recent years. Since 1990, when Cameroon put sub-Saharan Africa on the global soccer map with its quarterfinal run, only five of 20 African entrants have avoided first-round elimination. For some perspective, that abysmal success rate equals only that of Asia, and pales in comparison to CONCACAF -- fully half of the American and Caribbean region's 14 representatives since 1990 have advanced.

There's little evidence that this year's African representation is definitively better in terms of quality. So the optimism surrounding the continent's teams at the World Cup could be based only on the home-continent advantage, and maybe the sheer number of teams from Africa. But with each team facing multiple issues, it's hard to pick even one African team that looks like a sure bet to make the group stages.

In each of the last six World Cups, just one African team has managed to make the knockout rounds. This year could indeed be different. The question is: Will 2010 in fact be a bumper year on home soil for African teams, or will it be remembered as the unique World Cup in which all six of the "home" teams failed to deliver?

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.