By Kyra Fox
Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia hit the turf starting Thursday as the world’s most prestigious football (soccer) tournament began in Russia.
Though no African team has yet won the World Cup, it is not for lack of grit or passion. The continent regularly boasts a strong showing and some of the most spirited players and fans.
From the rad new Nigerian jerseys to concerns over racism in the stands, we compiled everything you need to know about Africa’s participation in the 2018 World Cup.
The elusive semi-finals
In 1977, Brazilian soccer legend Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. More than 20 years later, the continent’s teams are still vying to advance beyond the quarter-finals.
Why have African teams faced such challenges climbing the World Cup ranks?
Some blame the poor organization of many African leagues, though Spain’s sacking of their manager just two days before this year’s Cup reveals that disorganization extends far beyond African football leagues. Others have proposed that having more African team managers would spur the continent’s success. (Thirty of the 44 times an African team has appeared at the World Cup, the team has been managed by a non-African. This year alone, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt will be managed by German, French, and Argentine coaches respectively.)
Brighton and Cameroon defender Gaetan Bong blamed poor infrastructure for the absence of African teams’ success at the World Cup. He told the BBC, “We need to develop more because we have a lot of talented players in Africa – but we don’t have strong leagues.”
Many say now is the time for an African victory. Recent changes to refereeing and coaching standards have brought fans hope that the continent can break its unlucky streak at this year’s tournament.
Teams to watch out for
Among the five African teams, Nigeria and Senegal possess the best shot at making it to the slippery semi-final round.
Nigeria have made regular appearances in the World Cup since the late 1990s. The team qualified easily for this year’s tournament with one negligible loss to Algeria. Nigeria’s all-star captain John Obi-Mikel, along with a robust midfield and attack make the team a favorite contender for the semi-finals, despite a disappointing loss to Croatia on Saturday.
2002 quarter-finalists Senegal hope for another shot at the semi-finals at this year’s Cup. Coached by the legendary Aliou Cissé and led by solid striker Sadio Mané, the team will require precise strategy to again “shock the world” in this year’s tournament.
Egypt will make their first World Cup appearance in 28 years, in spite of their outstanding performance at the Africa Cup of Nations. Star player Mohamed Salah has carried the team’s recent success, scoring almost half of his country’s goals. But his recent shoulder injury has fans worried that the team’s dependence on Salah will prove to be its fatal flaw. Though Salah was approved to play at this year’s Cup, the rest of the team will have to step up to the plate for Egypt to be successful.
Tunisia and Morocco will both make their fifth World Cup appearance this year. Though both teams have proved dependable, prospects for a quarter- or semi-finals appearance are slim against high achieving opponents.
Countries in the spotlight
It would not be the World Cup without the usual gossip and controversies, and African teams are no exception. The last World Cup saw boycotts from Ghanaian players over unpaid appearance fees and a late arrival by the Cameroonian team after a dispute over bonus payments. This year, Egypt and Nigeria are making headlines.
On Wednesday, Egypt announced it would force FIFA to hand over broadcasting rights for 22 matches of the World Cup games. Egypt’s Competition Authority accused FIFA of violating Egyptian freedom of competition laws, but did not specify how it would force FIFA to hand over its broadcasting rights.
Nigeria has drawn attention for another reason: their jerseys were deemed the most stylish of the 2018 World Cup. Designed by Nike and already selling out across the globe, Nigeria’s kit is a head-turner with its striking green and white feathered design. With Nike announcing no plans to restock the kits, counterfeit markets have sprung up in Lagos and other fan hubs around the world.
Concerns over fan racism
Just two months ago in a league cup semi-final, Russian league Spartak Moscow received a partial stadium ban after chanting ape noises at Cape Verdean player Nuno Rocho. The incident reignited concerns among African and non-African players alike over Russia’s long history of racism in the football stands.
A recent study by a football monitoring nonprofit found a considerable rise in discriminatory chants in Russian football stadiums in the past year, though other types of discriminatory incidents declined. On Tuesday, a group of Russian soccer fans posted a song called “White Pride” on its social media page; other fan groups have followed suit.
Some black players have told their families to stay home to avoid racism at this year’s World Cup. Others are less concerned. For the first time, FIFA referees will have the right to abandon matches in response to racist chants. Meanwhile, Russian officials are taking preliminary measures to eliminate racist behavior from fans.
Looking to 2026
Only one African country – South Africa – has hosted a World Cup in the tournament’s 88-year history. The hopes of many African football fans were reignited last year when Morocco put in a bid to host the 2026 tournament, only to be dashed in a vote on Wednesday marking the country’s fourth unsuccessful attempt. The honor went instead to the U.S., Canada and Mexico in a joint bid, which won a significant majority despite concerns over logistics.
Now, African FIFA delegates are advocating for the reintroduction of a rotation system for World Cup hosting. The system, formerly used in 2010 when South Africa was selected to host, would ensure a fair distribution of World Cup locations. The Confederation of African Football Executive Committee member told BBC Sport, “I think this would be acceptable to FIFA because the World Cup is about taking football to the people.”
Want more of Africa and the World Cup? Check out OkayAfrica’s list of the seven most exciting moments in African World Cup history, and find a list of the week’s lineup for African teams here.
Thank you to Will Porter for his editorial guidance.