Rise of the small nations

James Copnall chronicles the year of the underdog in Africa

With all five qualifiers being decided on the last matchday of the ten-round series, this was undoubtedly the greatest African World Cup qualifying campaign ever. That Angola should have finished ahead of Nigeria was perhaps the biggest shock of all. The southern Africans have next to no pedigree, having qualified only twice for the Nations Cup and had little success once they got there. In contrast to Nigeria’s team of star names, Angola players come from the semi-professional local league, alongside a handful of veterans from the former colonial power Portugal and the middle-eastern leagues. Yet Angola upset Nigeria at home, thanks to a goal from SC Qatar’s Fabrice Akwa, drew the return, and then, when only a win would do, beat Rwanda away, Akwa scoring a late header.

The plain disorganisation that has come to characterise Nigerian football is shared by some of the other big names who did not make it. Cameroon have lost several important players, including Lauren (Arsenal) and PSG’s Modeste Mbami, who got fed up with the constant problems imposed by the Cameroonian FA. The Indomitable Lions were sunk by a side who were better organised and more talented – Ivory Coast. Roughly half of the Elephants squad are graduates of the football academy set up by former France international Jean-Marc Guillou, who also owns Beveren, the club that fielded ten Ivorians in the 2004 Belgian Cup final. In Kolo Touré (Arsenal), Didier Zokora (St Etienne) and Aruna Dindane (Lens), Guillou’s academy also produced players who would get into any African side. In addition the Ivorian FA, under the leadership of Jacques Anouma, have become one of the most well organised on the continent.

Despite all this, Cameroon should have qualified. They beat the Ivorians at home and again in the apparent group decider in Ivory Coast, in a thrilling game watched by Roman Abramovich and José Mourinho. However, the Indomitable Lions drew limply at home to Egypt in their last match. Even a scandalous injury-time penalty didn’t help, as Pierre Womé smashed the kick against the post – the defender admitted he feared for his safety as fans wrecked his house. Cameroon will now have to rebuild, with several players (Rigobert Song, Raymond Kalla, Womé himself) looking well past their best.

Togo emulated Angola, by winning at home and drawing away against Senegal. The tiny west African state, with a population of five million, has few big names. Only Monaco striker Emmanuel Adebayor has real star quality, finishing top scorer in the qualifiers with 11. In an era when almost all African teams are made up of Europe-based players, Togo fielded several locals. “I prefer a mix of locals and ‘Europeans’,” explained their Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi, “because the locals are always hungrier for success.”

Ghana’s qualification was less of a surprise. Their midfield, featuring Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah (Fenerbahce) and Sulley Ali Muntari (Udinese), is one of Africa’s best. The Black Stars finished in front of South Africa, who are in disarray, and DR Congo, who would be proud to reach that state, squad members having absconded on recent trips to Europe.

African football seems to be levelling out. Twelve of the 16 teams that qualified for the 2006 African Nations Cup, to be held in Egypt, will fancy their chances of winning it. Roughly half the continent will think they have a chance of following in Togo’s footsteps and reaching South Africa 2010. In large part this is due to the way European club football, with its vast resources and state-of-the-art academies, has opened its doors to young African players in recent years. All but one of Ivory Coast’s squad play in Europe, for example, and the same is largely true of Ghana, as well as Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon.

And the old guard rested on their laurels. Nigeria took qualification as a divine right (“God is Nigerian,” said one fan on the BBC’s African Football website), Cameroon thought they had done the hard work when they beat Ivory Coast and Senegal never hinted at matching their 2002 form.

If the new teams may not present much of a threat to the rest of the world during Germany 2006, there is likely to be at least one positive benefit from Africa’s topsy-turvy qualifying series. The 2006 African Nations Cup finals, pitting supposed underdogs with World Cup tickets against “big” teams seeking revenge, may well be the best ever.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month