MARK CARRUTHERS recaps the performances by African teams at previous World Cups and wonders if they are ready to fulfil their growing potential in Brazil.

As a footballer, Pele didn’t get a lot wrong did he? I mean he didn’t score from the halfway line when he tried it…..and that trick when he dummied the keeper and was left with an empty net but still missed….and obviously that eight yard header he missed against England we can put down to Gordon Banks brilliance, I guess. I suppose we can point to his emergence on the scene in the 1958 World Cup, being at the heart of arguably the greatest Brazil World Cup side ever at the 1970 World Cup and my personal favourite – the overhead kick whilst suffering from broken ribs in Escape to Victory to balance out the negatives.

Anyway, I digress. He doesn’t get a lot wrong but his prediction that an African country would win the World Cup by 2000 was incorrect and in this article – which hopefully you are still reading – I will look at how the African nations have fared at the World Cup.

The first African country to take part in a World Cup was Egypt – at the second – played in Italy in 1934. The tournament was organised on a straight knock out basis and the Pharaohs were drawn against Hungary in the first round. A notable landmark was hit as Abdulrahman Fawzi became the first African to score at a finals – in fact he struck twice – but that was all in vein as the Egyptians were knocked out with a 4-2 defeat seeing them boarding the plane home after just one match. The game was somewhat controversial though as Fawzi had a third goal ruled out for offside despite dribbling from the half way line with the ball and the fourth Hungarian goal came after a scuffle that saw the Egyptian keeper suffer a broken nose.

Between 1938 and 1966 no African side made it to the finals for a number of reasons. Egypt attempted a return at the 1938 World Cup but withdrew and in the first renewal after World War II, no African country even attempted to qualify for Brazil in 1950. The following four tournaments saw political issues and a complicated qualification process deny the likes of Sudan, United Arab Republic, Ethiopia and Nigeria from making their bow at the finals.

Finally, after an absence of 36 years, Africa had a representative – in the shape of Morocco – at the World Cup in Mexico 1970, although a bizarre set of circumstances denied Rhodesia, (modern day Zimbabwe) a place alongside them. Having been drawn against Australia, the Rhodesians performed heroically, especially goalkeeper Robin Jordan. After two draws the Australians ordered a Mozambican witch doctor to curse him. The third game saw Jordan taken off injured after a collision with a player and the Socceroos won 3-1.

Morocco faired a little better at the World Cup and had the honour of gaining the first ever point by an African country, by way of a draw with Bulgaria. However, defeats by Peru and West Germany saw the Moroccans on the plane home at the end of the group phase.

Two separate, yet infamous events took place at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany with tournament debutants Zaire at the heart of both. After losing to Scotland – a Scottish win is rare, but that isn’t one of the aforementioned events – the Leopards faced Yugoslavia who dispatched them with ease by the largest win in finals history. A 9-0 defeat saw the Africans exit the tournament, but accusations that their bonuses went missing were made; striker Ndaye commented “Frankly we’d lost our morale, we could have let in twenty goals”


Things went from bad to worse in their final game as one of the most comical moments in World Cup history took place. A 3-0 defeat to Brazil could almost be seen as a moral victory, but whilst waiting for a Brazilian free kick to take place, Zaire defender Ilunga burst out of the wall and smashed the ball seventy yards up the field. Comical, ridiculous, whatever you want to call it, Ilunga was booked and his side left the tournament without scoring a goal.

African pride had been hurt by the Zaireans performance in West Germany but some of that was restored by Tunisia four years later in Argentina. An African nation finally gained that maiden victory at the finals as they defeated Mexico 3-1, and although they were defeated by an impressive Polish side, they did end the competition with a fantastic stalemate against the hosts.

Cameroon made their first appearance in Spain in 1982 and were the first African side to remain undefeated at a tournament – although three draws against Peru, Poland and eventual winners Italy saw them depart at the group stage on the basis despite having the same amount of points and zero goal difference as the Azzurri. Algeria made a bigger impact shocking the football world by beating West Germany and Chile, although a defeat against Austria saw their chances of progressing scuppered.

The Germans and Austrians played the final game of the group knowing a 1-0 or 2-0 win would send both sides through. What transpired between the European neighbours was a blatant carve-up as one of the most shocking shows of poor sportsmanship at a World Cup took place. The Germans scored after ten minutes and the rest of the game was played out with both sides passing the ball without even trying to threaten the goal – much to the annoyance of the Spanish crowd and both sets of supporters. The Algerians protested; but that was dismissed, although as a result of the debacle in Gijon, FIFA subsequently changed the rules so final group games in future tournaments were played at the same time.

A breakthrough was made at Mexico 1986, as Morocco were the first African side to make it through the group stages and into the knockout section. Shock draws with England and Poland, along with a 3-1 win over Portugal, saw them advance to a glamour tie with West Germany. The heroics of Moroccan keeper Zaki kept the mighty Germans at bay, but a Lothar Matthaus goal three minutes from time saw the brave Africans exit with their pride very much intact.

cameroon 2

Italia ‘90 marked a watershed for African football as the continent produced not only one of the stars of the tournament, but arguably the most entertaining team and biggest upset in World Cup finals history. Cameroon shocked the world by beating Diego Maradona’s Argentina with a 1-0 win the first game in the cauldron of Milan’s San Siro. A header from Francois Omam-Biyik gave them the points although the game is perhaps most remembered for a triple assault on Argentinean striker Claudio Cannigia. Their next game saw an unlikely star emerge in 38-year-old striker Roger Milla – yes, he of the corner flag wiggle celebration. His brace gave his side a 2-1 win over a strong Romania side and with it came qualification for the second round. There, they beat Colombia with Milla scoring twice again, one of them coming after cheekily robbing the ball from Colombia’s eccentric keeper Rene Higuita.

That set up a quarter-final game with Bobby Robson’s England and boy, did they get a scare. Cameroon were seven minutes away from being the first African side to reach the semi-finals but a late Gary Lineker penalty took the game to extra time after the sides played out a 2-2 draw in normal time. Another Lineker spot kick sent England through but Cameroon, and Milla in particular, went home having won the hearts of observers worldwide, if not the famous trophy itself.

The finals broke new ground in 1994 as the United States hosted the tournament for the first time. Nigeria were Africa’s continent’s shining light this time with striker Rashid Yekini the star. In the group stages they hammered a Bulgarian side that would go on to reach the semi-finals by three goals to nil and although they suffered a brave loss to the Argentineans, a 2-0 win over Greece saw them advance to the last sixteen. A tie against Italy saw striker Emmanual Amuneke give the Africans a surprise lead which they would hold until the 88th minute when Roberto Baggio’s goal broke Nigerian hearts taking the tie into extra time. If he broke them with that goal, Baggio stomped all over them in extra time as another goal from Il Divin’ Codino sent the Super Eagles packing.

Despite having five representatives at a tournament for the first time at France ’98, most of the African contingent struggled to make an impression. Morocco, Cameroon, South Africa and Tunisia all exited the tournament at the group stage while Nigeria were humbled by Denmark in the round of 16 after impressive wins over Spain and Bulgaria previously; although Cameroon’s Rigobert Song did create a somewhat unwanted record of becoming the first player to be sent off at two separate tournaments.


2002 saw the World Cup co-hosted for the first time by Japan and South Korea. Senegal came literally from Africa, but metaphorically from nowhere to rock holders France in the opening game as a Papa Bouba Diop goal condemned Zidane, Henry et al to a humiliating 1-0 defeat, echoing the feat of the Cameroonians 12 years earlier. Subsequent draws with Uruguay and Denmark saw Senegal progress by the narrowest of margins. A round of sixteen tie with Sweden saw Henri Camara notch the first ever golden goal by an African nation to send the Swedes home. However, the much-maligned golden goal rule came back to haunt the Senegalese in the quarter-finals as they were knocked out by semi-final bound Turkey.

Ghana debuted at the tournament in Germany in 2006, and what a debut it was. An opening defeat to eventual winners Italy put their tournament in immediate jeopardy but wins over the USA and Czech Republic saw them advance. However, a 3-0 defeat to Brazil – with accusations of match fixing – saw them knocked out although in four years time they would make an even bigger impact as the tournament was held in Africa for the first time.

South Africa played host as FIFA rewarded the continent for their progression and development of the game. A tournament full of colour and vibrancy was played out to the unforgettable soundtrack of those droning vuvuzelas. A narrow win over Serbia, a draw with Australia and a defeat to Germany saw the Ghanaians advance from Group D by the skin of their teeth. An extra time win in the round of sixteen over the USA put them through to the quarter-finals – only the second African nation to do so after Cameroon in 1990. Just as Cameroon had at Italia ’90, the Ghanaians came oh-so close to breaking Africa’s semi-final duck. With the quarter-final against Uruguay heading to a penalty shoot-out, Asamoah Gyan was literally handed the chance to make African finals history as Luis Suarez blocked a shot on the goal line with his hand; the now-Liverpool striker was sent off and a spot kick awarded. Agonisingly, Gyan crashed the penalty kick off the crossbar and his side were eliminated as history beckoned.

And so to Brazil. This time the hopes of Africa are carried by Algeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. Can Pele’s prophecy be fulfilled some 14 years after its intended date? Can the likes of Drogba, Eto’o and…errrr…Shola Ameobi write their names into African and World Cup folklore? An entire continent and a Brazilian football legend await the answer.