IN the run-up to the just-concluded FIFA World Cup tournament hosted by Russia, anxieties among the commentators and football aficionados worldwide centred on two things: uncertainty about the capacity of the hosts to deliver a crisis-free tournament, and the disruption that many feared the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology would bring. In the end, those anxieties proved unfounded, for not only did Russia, against all cataclysmic predictions, deliver a tournament that will go down in the annals as one of the most well organised, the introduction of VAR was not the digital killjoy that many had hastily branded it as. On the contrary, VAR arguably enhanced the efficiency, precision and quality of officiating throughout the tournament, and is surely now on its way to being introduced in domestic leagues across the world now that players and fans have adjusted to its modus operandi.
The readiness of Russia to host an event of such magnitude and the feared disruptive potential of VAR were far from the only things bookmakers got wrong. Heading into the most important event in the global football calendar every four years, bookmakers and fans indulge in a totally harmless ritual of predicting the eventual tournament winners. This year, Germany, winners in 2014, and Brazil, five-time winners and the only team to have appeared in every tournament since inception in 1930, were understandably favoured. But bookmakers and armchair forecasters could not have been more wrong. For the first time in its history of participation in the World Cup, Germany did not make it out of the group stages, and Brazil, for all the mercurial talent of striker Neymar Jr., fell to Belgium, who equaled their best record of going all the way to the semi-finals, where they lost to the eventual winners, France.
From an African perspective, France’s 4-2 triumph over Croatia in the final is instructive in its own way. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, “Sixteen of the 23 players on the team come from families that recently immigrated to France from places like Zaire, Cameroon, Morocco, Angola, Congo or Algeria. Forward Antoine Griezmann, the team’s leading scorer, is half-German and half-Portuguese. Defender Samuel Umtiti, who scored the goal that sent France to the final, was born in Cameroon. Teenage prodigy Kylian Mbappe is part Cameroonian, part Algerian.” In other words, France has profited from opening its borders to talent from all across the world, especially Africa, and coach Didier Deschamps acknowledged this all-important African connection when he remarked that “It has always been the case that the French team has always had players from Africa and from other countries and territories, and not just in football but in other sports.” In order to stem the haemorrhage to France and other European countries, African teams must learn to harness the abundant talents of their youth population.
While France’s gain is the loss of several African countries, Africa’s representatives at the World Cup— Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt—had a tournament to forget as, for the first time since 1982, no African team advanced to the second round. While the three North African teams punched their return tickets well before their final games, Nigeria and Senegal went into their final games with a good chance of making it to the final 16. Yet, both fell at the final hurdle. While Nigeria allowed its perennial World Cup foes, Argentina, to poach a last-minute goal, Senegal, coached by former player Aliou Cisse, lost 1-0 to a Colombia. Managed by the German Gernot Rohr and captained by midfielder John Obi Mikel, the Nigerian team showed flashes of what it might yet become. We expect to see further progress under the German’s auspices at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
The most important insight from the World Cup concerns the gradually changing balance of power in global football. Gone, it seems, are the days when European powers were automatically favored against African and Asian minnows. With better preparation and judicious harnessing of resources, African countries can take Qatar 2022 by storm.
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