Russia 2018 was the worst World Cup for Africa in 36 years as no side from the continent progressing through to the knockout stage for the first time since 1982.
The quintet of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal landed in Russia with the mission to emulate, or surpass, the three African teams that have reached the quarter-finals – Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010).
Within two weeks, all five were heading home. So what went wrong for the African teams in Russia?
“Nothing. This was just a weak batch. I’m sure better days are ahead,” journalist and African football expert Mark Gleeson told Al Jazeera. “I don’t believe there’s a big crisis but at the moment there’s a lack of talent in African football.”
Continental giants Egypt lost all three group matches, while Morocco managed a single point courtesy a draw against Spain.
Tunisia lost their opening two group matches to seal an early exit before snatching a win over already eliminated Panama. Nigeria beat Iceland but defeat to Croatia and Argentina sealed an early flight home.
Senegal grabbed four points from their first two group games after beating Poland and drawing with Japan. But the Teranga Lions became the first team in World Cup history to be eliminated because of their disciplinary record in Russia.
“Results don’t lie. We showed, at certain moments, that Africa has the talent and skill to go toe-to-toe with the best sides in the world,” Zambia‘s former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya said while admitting it was a poor outing by the African sides.
“In terms of raw talent, we are up there with the best of them. Africa promised so much but in the end, we have to count our losses. I am sure all of Africa is disappointed. We have to get down and analyse critically, individually and collectively.
“We should work in harmony. We can’t change what happened now, but we have an obligation to look positively to the future.”
Emmanuel Amuneke, who played for Nigeria at World Cup 1994, claimed African football had gone backwards.
The 1994 African Footballer of The Year said even the most basic facilities needed to improve in Africa for the continent to succeed globally.
“This is a big setback to African football. If all the African teams had done well, we would not be asking ourselves these questions,” said Amuneke.
“We had seen a lot of growth and improvement in African football since Cameroon great performance in 1990, Nigeria in 1994 and Senegal in 2002. Sadly, as the rest of the world continues to grow, Africa went to sleep and failed to improve facilities and its players.
“Football has changed from the past and will continue to grow and develop. Its up to Africa to embrace the challenges that come with this change.”
And despite a lack of organisation and infrastructure on the ground, Bwalya is confident about the future.
“Don’t think it’s wise to look at 2026 with increased number of representation. Our work starts tomorrow because 2022 is not far. Let us learn to self-critique and analyse, then we would be better, come tomorrow.
“We need consistency, tenacity, belief, ambition and resolve. We have come from far, we had a major setback but nothing is impossible. I believe we shall overcome.”
Amuneke, who won the Nations Cup and Olympics football gold in 1994 and 1996 respectively, believes the continent’s governing body, CAF, must step in to bolster the continent’s chances and create a clear pathway to help countries excel.
“We need to embrace the challenges and changes. CAF must come up with a plan by making it mandatory that African football associations must improve their teams,” said Amuneke.
“Africa should not wait for 2026 but start with Qatar 2022 to start fixing all the problems. We need to ensure we don’t celebrate the increase in slots but that teams that will be at World Cup 2026 are capable of competing.
“We must invest in our football, cast aside tribal and ethnic sentiments, adopt a holistic approach towards analysing our problems, educate our players and get them in the right mental states for the World Cup.
“If we don’t do this we will fail again and keep asking the same questions.”