If Samuel Eto'o and Patrice Motsepe believe that an African team can one day win the World Cup, a study by Harvard researchers tries to explain why it will take several decades.
"An African team must win the World Cup in the near future." When he took the reins of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the South African Patrice Motsepe promised, in half words, that a continental selection would soon lift the most prestigious trophy in football. It is necessary, specified the new boss of CAF, that we “stop being too pessimistic and negative about the World Cup”. More recently, the new Cameroonian football boss Samuel Eto'o said: “People think that winning a World Cup is almost impossible for Africa. But I tell myself that it is possible”.
However, the African record speaks for itself: in previous World Cups, no selection from a country on the continent has been able to go beyond the quarter-finals. Admittedly, in 1990, Cameroon created a surprise in Italy, becoming the first African country to reach the quarter-finals. After a balanced overtime, Roger Milla and his partners finally lost. Twelve and twenty years later, Senegal and Ghana stalled at the same stage of the competition.
In view of the latest African performances, it is clear that no continental selection seems really ready to win the next World Cup. Especially since 2018 traumatized the continent: no African team had managed to extricate themselves from the group stages.
If it exists a real training problem in the different countries of the continent, the Africans seem to have made up their mind: victory in the World Cup is not for tomorrow. And the prospect ofa World Cup every two years which would be beneficial for African football does not give hope of a final African victory in the short term.
African teams are improving, but the gap is widening
But would there be other reasons for African failures in the World Cup? The finding interested researchers at the American University of Harvard. The latter published a study on the subject a few months ago. An analysis of the performance of the best African teams between 1970 and 1979, then between 2010 and 2019, shows that the level has increased on the continent, but that African teams are still far from the performance of historical teams such as Brazil, Germany or France.
Above all, the study shows above all the most regular teams, far from only being interestedin the FIFA ranking : thus, Algeria is the most regular team, with Cameroon, Egypt or even Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Problem for Africa: when its selections progress, the other international teams do so as well. To explain this, Harvard researchers rely on the “performance index” of selections. For Africa, this index which did not exceed 45 in 1979 is between 43 and 57 between 2010 and 2019. However, the performance index has also increased for the other continents, going up to 90 for some teams. The gap has actually widened between Western and African teams.
“Africa is doing better than the 1970-1979 period, but has even less chance of winning the trophy from the best nations in the world than at that time,” summarizes the Ecofin agency, which relates the Harvard study.
A story of talent?
Is there a talent gap between African and European players? Difficult to acquiesce, many Africans playing elsewhere in the biggest European championships.
To show that football is not just a story of talent, the researchers observed the performances of the Tunisian team of the 70s, which brought together real football stars such as Mokhtar Dhouib, Néjib Ghommidh or Tarak Dhiab. But against them, Platini, Tigana or Giresse performed better.
Why ? Quite simply thanks to a more difficult course for the French than for the Tunisians. In summary, by facing the best nations in the world, the Blues, for example, have progressed year after year, while Tunisia played only a few matches against the top teams. Result: during the big meetings, the pressure is on the Tunisian shoulders rather than on those of the French, who are used to this kind of match.
If an African selection wants to win the World Cup one day, it will have to increase the quality of its opponents. This means more friendly matches against major footballing nations.
But it will take time. A lot of time. The study thus sweeps away the prospects of observers, who see an African team lifting the World Cup by 2040. The fault, according to Harvard researchers, is the lack of openness of African selections internationally.
Finally, the study points to another major problem: infrastructure — we saw it during the last African Cup of Nations — and training are insufficient to give the continent every chance. Finally, the often stormy relations between the players and their federations, as well as the departures, very young, of players to Europe also slow down African progress.