“Out of Africa, always something new,” the Roman author Pliny the Elder was apparently fond of saying. But if he had been born a couple of millennia later and wore a football shirt instead of a toga, he may have held a different opinion.
For most African teams, World Cups have appeared to be the same old story – despite heightened expectations over the past 20 years as more and more players from the continent make an impact in Europe’s big leagues.
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Although they occasionally threaten to do so, we are still waiting for an African team to mount a serious challenge for the trophy.
The level of African teams never ceases to get better, bit by bit, than the previous years.
As of Saturday night, all four of the big West African teams at Brazil 2014 – Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana – have had a less-than-convincing start.
Cameroon are already out, Ghana and Ivory Coast have both lost, while continental champions Nigeria drew their first game with an Iran team who have, admittedly, since proven against Argentina that they are extremely hard to beat.
But there are signs that things could change, starting with the vital third group game that all three remaining teams face (Algeria fans may have to indulge me here – the North Africans may yet do well in Brazil but have not faced quite the same expectations of greatness as their sub-Saharan counterparts).
It also seems that the perception of African teams at this level could be way off the mark.
One bright spark for Ivory Coast has been Gervinho.
The former Lille and Arsenal striker, now playing for Roma, failed to score a goal as the Ivorians exited the group stage at South Africa 2010.
Experience starting to show
But with two goals in two games, his greater experience may be beginning to tell.
“The four years since South Africa have allowed us to evolve,” he told me after the team came from a goal down to beat Japan in their opening Group C fixture.
“For some of us, it’s a third World Cup. For me it’s my second. For others, they are discovering this wonderful competition for the first time, and that gives us a great mix in the squad.
“The level of African teams never ceases to get better, bit by bit, than the previous years.
“More than anything, it’s the experience we gain by playing a great competition like the World Cup that primes us to go further.”
Sadly, it was a team that had not tasted the World Cup in 16 years, Colombia, against whom the Ivory Coast came unstuck in the next match. Only Gervinho’s wonderful solo goal in the second-half was enough to cut through a stodgy South American defence in a 2-1 defeat.
With just Greece to come though the Ivory Coast can have some confidence of reaching the last-16 for the first time in their history – which brings us to one of the reasons that African teams can not truly be counted failures at the highest level.
I’ve covered two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, in Angola and South Africa, and for both months wondered why these players didn’t seem likely to add the biggest title of all to the continental trophy. But it may be a question that is not backed up by a great deal of evidence.
Ghana setting the standard
Aside from the fact that Cameroon almost got into the semi-finals in 1990, and Ghana would have been in the semi-finals four years ago if it wasn’t for Luis Suarez’s handball on the line, each of the African teams has not been at enough World Cups to make a true evaluation of their capability.
Stars like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure make the Ivory Coast seem like they’ve been around for years. But this is only their third tournament.
If they do not get through against Greece, they will have fallen in the group stages for the third time in a row. But any statistician will tell you that three instances is far too small a sample to form a good conclusion.
By contrast, England have appeared at the finals 14 times, won once, and not done dreadfully well at many others. That is a far truer test.
Ghana meanwhile have also appeared at three tournaments, reached the knockouts in both the first two, and played well enough in Saturday’s draw with Germany to suggest that the shock defeat to the USA can be overcome against Portugal. Let’s face it – Ghana have a great record at the World Cup.
Less so Nigeria, but their five appearances is still not a great test. They reached the last 16 at their first two attempts, and finished bottom of the group the next two times.
But Saturday night’s win – by inches – over Bosnia-Herzegovina gives them a superb chance to qualify this time around.
Let’s also not forget that all of these are relatively young nations who have gone through turbulent colonial and post-colonial times. Angola’s performance at Germany 2006 was incredible considering they came four years after the end of a two-decade civil war.
In any assessment of capability, it is unfair to lump all African teams together. Cameroon’s failure reflects on Ghana no more than Spain’s failure reflects on Croatia.
The only thing we can say for certain is that if Africa’s big teams continue their form of the last few tournaments, they will be doing no worse than some of Europe’s sides whom we automatically consider more successful without much evidence.