Since its opening in 1930, 13 African countries have taken part in the World Cup. Only three of them reached the quarter-finals: Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them have ever reached the semi-finals.
African players are currently rocking the European football scene like never before and many of them belong to the global elite. So why are their teams on the African continent lagging behind?
“In recent years, African players have become more and more competitive, playing for some of the best clubs in the world and even competing for the Ballon d’Or,” says former Moroccan international Yassine Abdessadi. “It enriches African football.”
But he believes there are other factors holding back African teams internationally.
The role of the psyche
The former Strasbourg and Freiburg winger believes African teams are relying too heavily on the talent of their biggest stars while neglecting other aspects of the game.
“Culturally, in Africa, they don’t usually work on things that have long become standards in Europe or South America,” he explains, “especially on the mental aspects.”
For Abdessad, even the best player in the world doesn’t know what to do with the ball in a stressful situation. This is a matter of psychological preparation, which is directly related to playing on the field.
“Teams like Spain, France, Belgium or Brazil always play the ball very cleanly,” he says. “Even under pressure, they never force the ball, but stick to their preferred approach. On the other hand, less prepared teams tend to just kick the ball as far as they can in stressful situations.”
Another problem faced by African teams is the lack of a clear vision and long-term planning.
“You can’t suddenly enter a tournament one day and then set yourself such a high goal as reaching the quarterfinals. If you do this, it will be too late,” says Karim Haggi.
For the former Tunisian defender, who played for Bayer Leverkusen, Hannover 96 and Fortuna Düsseldorf among others, African football has no long-term development plans.
“There has to be a learning strategy,” he says. “We need to work on raising the level of football in Africa, we need to invest in the training of coaches.”
This opinion is shared by former Schalke and Wolfsburg defender Hans Sarpey. The 36-time Ghana international believes African federations should be more focused, set a goal such as reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, and give themselves 12 years to achieve it.
“There is no 100% guarantee that this will work,” he says. “But if you look at Germany or even France, you will see that there are countries that are working with such a plan.”
Less resources, less chance
The careful creation of a team, the training of competent personnel and the implementation of the project with all the necessary technical, physical and mental work takes time, but above all money. In this regard, African teams are still far from their European or South American counterparts.
In 2021, the total budget of the French Football Federation (FFF) was just over 249 million euros ($257.1 million), with top-tier sports accounting for around 65 million euros. For comparison, the budget of the Cameroonian football association FECAFOOT in 2020 was the equivalent of only 12.7 million euros.
However, lack of funds is not the only reason for poor performances at previous World Championships. For Abdessada, this is also related to the number of participating teams from Africa.
“It’s a matter of probability,” he says. “There are fewer African teams at the World Championships than European or South American ones. So it’s statistically less likely that one of those teams will make it to the final four.”
The odds stack against Africa
Up until France in 1998, when five slots were first reserved for an African federation, only three African teams were eligible to compete against the best in the world. This meant that even the most stable teams lacked experience at the highest level.
With eight participants, Cameroon has the longest World Cup record of any African country, but as Haggi points out, “That’s not bad, but only half that of some of the top South American or European teams.”
For Ricardo Fati, experience is also key.
“Ghana were very close to the semi-finals against Uruguay in 2010 but I think they lacked experience,” says the former Senegal international, but he thinks things could change in Qatar this year.
“I really believe that this year there are teams like Senegal or even Cameroon that have enough talent and experience to make this move,” he says. “Especially thanks to the presence of players who play for the biggest clubs in Europe.”
A little different pressure
But beware of expectations, which according to Hans Sarpey are higher in Africa than anywhere else.
“In Germany, you hope that the national team will win the World Cup. However, in Africa, winning is a must,” he says. “Most African players play in Europe and are able to withstand the pressure. But it’s quite another thing when the whole country is waiting for victory.”
“They feel pressure not only for themselves, but also for their families. When you drop out, you know you can’t go back to your home country the first time, you fly back to Europe where you play.”
In Russia in 2018, no African team advanced from the groups for the first time since 1982. Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, Tunisia and Morocco are under pressure this year in Qatar to prevent a repeat.
Edited by Matt Ford