Alan Duncan reflects on the uneven performances of the African countries at the World Cup, tantalising and disappointing in equal measure

The scores of Senegalese vendors who mill around the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris for once looked every bit as elated and carefree as the wind-up paper birds they release into the air and, very occasionally, back down into the arms of some un­suspecting tourist.

“Today, you buy, I’m happy, you don’t buy, I’m happy, you look only, I’m happy, See-nee-gaal have beaten France!” said Mamadou Ndiaye, a Sen­egalese im­migrant living in France on no more than bird feed since 1993, but who, on May 31, stood enriched by a dream straight from his homeland. “Last time, one of our bro­thers, Youssou N’dour, sang for France and they won the World Cup, now it is Africa’s turn!” Ndiaye said.

Leaving aside the flights of fancy of their fans, Senegal’s last eight finish, which saw them equal Cam­eroon’s 1990 record, along with South Africa’s historic first win against Slovenia, were the only flourishes in an otherwise disappointing World Cup for Africa. Still, Senegal’s performan­ces re­­vealed the potentially fresh new face of Af­ric­an foot­ball – a side retaining the quintessential values of flair and improvisation har­nessed to European-like dili­gence and tactical discipline. That this distinction was ex­pected to fall to Cam­- eroon says a lot about the inherent capacity of African football to confound as much as it enthrals.

Senegal were not totally immune from traditional failings, of course, notably against Uruguay, who claw­ed back a 3-0 first-half deficit. But for an inspirational last minute goal-line clearance by Lamine Diatta and a terrible miss by Richard Morales, Diouf and Co might have found themselves prematurely booking appointments with their infamous witchdoctors.

When defeat came in the shape of a sublime Ilhan Mansiz golden goal for Turkey, this did little to deflect from preparations for the huge heroes’ welcome the team received on June 25 in Dakar. The already acute sense of historic achievement was given ironic symbolism when the team touched down in the capital on an Air France flight.

Senegal’s French coach Bruno Metsu, however, has since been vilified by the local press for not exploiting the full scope of his talented substitutes against Turkey – something he had done to great effect against Swe­den in the previous round, when both Salif Diao, scorer of one of the tournament’s best goals, and the beguiling left-winger Khalilou Fadiga were sus­pended. What is clear, however, is that the losing finalists in February’s African Cup of Nations looked more burnt-out than outclassed against Turkey. That result, though dis­appointing in itself, at least maintained Senegal’s re­cord of not having lost inside 90 minutes in 11 con­secutive matches in both major competitions this year.

For a team who have prospered under the aegis of the country’s football-loving president, Abdulaye Wade, the challenge now lies in carrying the same spirit of solidarity and hunger into the future. Metsu is rumour­ed to be about to depart; that his 18-month tenure with the national team is the longest of any of Africa’s qualifiers speaks volumes about the stability they desperately need. Metsu’s counterpart with Cam­eroon, Win- fried Schäfer, the only other coach to have survived from the Nations Cup (and whose contract renewal is currently the focus of heated debate in Cameroon) is still well short of a year in the job.

Schäfer’s Cameroon have only themselves to blame for their lame showing. Only days before their scheduled arrival in their Japanese base, Cameroon’s players reclaimed their familiar role of the bonus-stricken patient in the African football ward. In the ensuing squab­bles, Alya Mohamed, the Cameroonian federation boss, claims to have been blackmailed by players who refused to board their government-sponsored Camair flight before receiving cash up front.

Given the fact that it took an entire weekend in France to sort out the imbroglio, the ill-discipline which characterised the stand-off between the players on the one side and the federation and sports ministry on the other, not to mention the subsequent frantic negotiations to fly over Vietnamese and Cambodian air space en route, Cameroon’s hopes were as good as grounded from the start.

“The players were complacent,” said one federation insider. “They were used to teams succumbing easily. When the Irish fought back against them, they sud­denly started to doubt themselves.” Indeed, the closest Cameroon got to the discipline they so publicly crave came in a masterclass from Germany, who despite losing a man in an ill-tempered affair still held on for a 2-0 win. Afterwards Franz Beckenbauer, charming as ever, described Cameroon as “the laziest play­ers I have ever seen”. That wasted opportunity looks likely to haunt Cameroonian fans for years to come.

From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month

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