Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, Ghana break African records during FIFA World Cup group stage.
The FIFA World Cup group stage was both heart-breaking and historic for Africa’s five representatives in Qatar, with records shattered, performances of remarkable quality, and no shortage of controversy.
But is it too soon for us to be talking about ‘progress’ for African teams at the World Cup?
Record-breaking success stories
Africa has never before registered more than three group stage victories in a single World Cup so the continent’s seven wins during Round One in Qatar is quite remarkable.
African teams combined to win three matches in the opening round in each of the previous six editions of the tournament, with no more than two per tournament before the increase to five representatives in 1998.
Africa matched that tally inside nine matches in Qatar, even though none of the continent’s five sides won their opening games; Senegal, Morocco and Ghana each won their second group match.
Africa then equalled its all-time tournament record for victories in a single edition (four in 2002 and 2010) in just 11 matches — and bettered it when Tunisia defeated France in match 12.
Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Ghana and Cameroon were all still in contention to make the Round of 16 going into the final group games, and they combined to blew their collective win record out of the water with all but the Black Stars victorious.
In taking seven points from their group matches, Morocco become only the fourth African team — after Cameroon (1982), Morocco (1986) and Senegal (2002) — to go through the opening round undefeated, while the Atlas Lions and the Teranga Lions are the first African sides since Ghana in 2006 to win two matches during the group stage.
There were just five defeats for African sides — the fewest since 1990, and a record for tournaments containing five or more CAF teams — which fits the narrative of a more open World Cup, with no team preserving a 100% record through the group stage for the first time since 1994.
Three sides from the Asian Confederation also reached the knockouts, and six of Round-of-16 match-ups feature teams from outside FIFA’s traditional powerhouses of Europe and South America — compared with two in 2018.
Africa’s victories, with one exception, were major giant-killings or games they should have won, according to the FIFA World Rankings.
Senegal’s victories against Qatar and Ecuador, and Morocco’s triumph over Canada, fell into the former category, with the Atlas Lions’ win against Belgium, Tunisia’s success against France and Cameroon’s last-gasp win against Brazil all falling into the second category.
The outlier was Ghana’s win over South Korea; the Black Stars have a lowly standing in the rankings, but the Asian team were ranked only No. 28 place heading into the tournament.
Tunisia’s victory over France is surely their greatest ever World Cup win, while Cameroon’s success against Brazil — a first World Cup triumph for an African side over the Selecao — is their finest hour on the world stage since beating reigning champions Argentina in the opening match of the 1990 tournament.
Morocco’s victory over Belgium was a bigger shock than their triumph over Portugal in 1986, even though the latter was more momentous as it guaranteed they became the first African side to reach the knockout stage.
Never before had African sides pulled off multiple giant killings in the same tournament, with the continent’s sides previously beating only four former winners.
Is there genuine progress?
There’s a lingering sense that this group stage represents an opportunity lost for some of the continent’s sides, despite the impressive results and the outstanding performances in specific fixtures.
Tunisia will rue taking four points from Denmark and France but allowing themselves to be outfought and outgunned by Australia — ranked lower in the FIFA ranking — while Ghana were eliminated after heading into their final group game against a lacklustre Uruguay knowing that a draw would be enough to see them through.
The Black Stars may point to a controversial refereeing call in their opening defeat by Portugal as one reason for their exit, but Cameroon have only themselves to blame after surprise personnel decisions and disruption in the camp prevented them from capitalising on a sluggish Switzerland and a vulnerable Serbia in their opening matches.
Only the Indomitable Lions could end a tournament with a defensive triangle of a second-choice keeper, a rookie and a left-back after overlooking their first-choice centre-back from the squad and sending their goalkeeper home after one match.
Despite the seven victories, and even though only South American teams averaged more points-per-game than Africa’s sides during the group stage, still only two sides progressed to the knockouts — equalling Africa’s record from the 2014 tournament but not breaking new ground.
Morocco the continent’s standouts
In pipping Croatia and Belgium in Group F, Morocco became the second African team, after Nigeria, to top a World Cup group twice, having previously achieved the feat in 1986.
The Super Eagles’ of 1994 and 1998 went home after elimination in the Round of 16, and the Atlas Lions are expected to follow suit after being drawn against Spain side in the second round.
Despite the qualities of their opponents — and nearby neighbours — Morocco will surely be quietly confident they can upset one of the big boys again.
Their defensive unit containing Yassine Bounou, Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui ought to rank among the best in the competition, while Youssef En-Nesyri‘s double against Canada may finally solve the long-standing problems they’ve had in identifying a genuine consistent goal threat.
The Atlas Lions, who have been spurred on by a partisan ‘home’ support in Qatar, appear to be Africa’s best bet to make the quarterfinals.
Ghana can’t banish their demons
The most hotly anticipated clash of the group stage pitted Ghana and Uruguay against one another in a rematch of the infamous 2010 quarterfinal.
The match provided an opportunity for the Black Stars to banish the demons that have hung over them since Luis Suarez‘s handball, Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty, and their ultimate shootout failure in Soccer City, and the West Africans knew that a draw would be enough to progress.
They utterly blew the opportunity, appearing visibly deflated after Andre Ayew‘s dismal missed penalty midway through the first half, then wilting as Giorgian de Arrascaeta netted twice in six minutes to secure an advantage that Ghana were unable to overhaul.
It was ultimately a limp exit to a campaign that at times had promised so much, with Ayew letting his country down when they needed him most — as he had done in the final 2021 Africa Cup of Nations group game against Comoros.
Ayew and Luis Suarez were the only two survivors from the remarkable quarterfinal 12 years ago; they were united in elimination here, and it remains to be seen if this was their final act in international football.
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