Africa’s Soccer Giants

16 October 2005 at 00:52 | 1216 views

By Abu B. Shaw, London

It was scintillating and nerve-racking as dark clouds descended on various stadiums around Africa on October 8 2005. Four football heroes were born that historic evening. The emergence of Africa’s new comers to next year’s World Cup finals in Germany apparently brought smile on mother Africa.

The qualification of first timers Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast and Angola to next summer’s finals have heralded a new era in African football. The glory days of legendary teams like Nigeria’s Super Eagles, the Indombitable Lions of Cameroon, Desert Warriors of Algeria, Atlas Lions of Morocco and South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, are far from over. But considering their latest elimination by hitherto unknowns is clearly and indication of how the bar has been raised in African football.

In previous World Cup finals, statistics shows that only 9 African countries had ever gone through to the World Cup finals since its inception in Uruguay in 1930. Seventy-five years later, the number has now risen to 13 to grace the occasion in Germany 2006.

Tunisia is the only African legend to grace the next World Cup. Going to the grand finale three times consecutively, Tunisia is equalled only to Cameroon and Nigeria. The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia joined the first time quartets after forcing Morocco to a two all draw in Tunis on October 8. That decisive Group Five tie was played late Saturday night to give players of both teams ample time to complete the fasting period.

In Group One, the Hawks of Togo had a battle of their lives in their last match in Congo Brazzaville where they ended 3-2 winners. They came twice behind to overcome their host. The former Nigerian skipper Stephen Keshi, who took Nigeria’s Super Eagles to the World Cup finals for the first time in 1994, is currently Togolese head coach. President Faure Gnassingbe declared Monday October 10 a national holiday in Togo as the festive mood gripped the 5 million populated West African nation.

The Black Stars of Ghana in Group Two set an enviable record by being the best qualifier of all five group leaders. In Praia, the Cape Verde capital, Ghana, inspired by the English Champion Chelsea’s midfielder Michael Essien, thrashed their host 4-0. This is Ghana’s first ever World Cup qualification thereby making them the second West African nation to represent Africa.

La Cote d’Ivoire is the third West African country to book their ticket to next summer’s football bonanza. Topping Group Three, this group was as dramatic as it was thrilling. Cameroon need only to beat their guest, the Pharaoh’s of Egypt to sail through. It never materialised because at 1-1 in injury time in the jammed packed Olympic stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon missed a dubious penalty which silenced the home crowd in disbelief.

At the same time in the Sudanese capital Khartoum the Elephants of Ivory Coast were leading 3-1. As news of Cameroon’s 1-1 draw filtered through the stadium, a great feeling of happiness and triumph engulfed the Ivorian substitute bench. The celebrations that ensued in Ivory Coast were not unexpected.

Group Four also produced an impressive newcomer from Southern Africa. Angola’s stunning display throughout the qualifying series did not give former World Cupper Nigeria’s Super Eagles even an inch of breathing space. Angola’s Palancas Negras became the first team from the continent to qualify for Germany following their 1-0 victory over Rwanda in Kigali. The historic goal was netted by the Qatar based striker Fabrice Akwa.

With all five teams known and Africa’s football governing body, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), poised to send the names of Africa’s ambassadors to the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA), the body responsible for world football, soccer pundits have already started pondering over the capability of the five newcomers.

Some are of the opinion that these first timers are mere sight seers come Germany 2006. Optimists are however viewing it differently because they still vividly remember the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea. Who could forget that historic opening match between a star-studded France and newcomer the Lions of Senegal? Beyond all expectations, the West African novice hammered the defending champions 1-0 thanks to a Bouba Diop goal who plays for English Premiership club Fulham FC.

Photo: Ghana Black Stars players celebrating their World Cup qualification.