“Ghana are going to the World Cup – and we need to beat them to show our people that it's an accident that we're not going to the World Cup. The best thing we can do now is to win this African Nations Cup… it's really important. This is my World Cup. I'm going to give my best at this tournament. Senegal is a big nation and everyone respects us. I know it will be tough but we are ready to give everything to ensure that the trophy goes to Dakar, because our fans deserve it.”
The above were the words of Senegalese forward El Hadji Diouf. He was speaking to reporters at his team's Ismailia base ahead of last Friday's Group D game against Ghana. As it turned out after 5:15 pm Friday, his team lost to the Black Stars. Clearly, the former African Footballer of the Year has not digested his team's failure to qualify for Germany. His assertion that Senegal's failure to qualify for Germany is an accident on the surface appears true. After all, the nation that beat them to the sole ticket in their group, Togo, have failed to go past the first round of CAN 2006.
But was it really an accident? His team failed to qualify for the World Cup after playing 10 matches. They could only pick a point out of a possible six against the Togolese. His dream of lifting the Cup in Egypt for his country may likely not materialise after all. The Teranga Lions do not have an impressive Nations Cup record. Even when they hosted the tournament in 1992, they could not go past the quarter-finals. In Egypt so far, they have not shone. Diouf himself has been anything but extraordinary. His displays on the pitch so far have only flattered to deceive. Senegal were unimpressive in their 2-0 opening game victory over Zimbabwe. Against Ghana, they were lucky not to have gone down by at least a two-goal margin in the first half where they were out of sorts especially in the first 25 minutes.
They are currently second behind Nigeria with a goal advantage over Ghana with whom they share the same three points. But the odds favour Ghana to join Nigeria into the quarter-finals. Nigeria with six points and a goal aggregate of +3 after two games would most definitely get to the knock-out stage but would still want at least a point in their last group game against Senegal to top the group thus leaving Senegal with four points. The Super Eagles would want to establish their dominance over the Teranga Lions who are bitter to date over the manner of their semi-final loss to them in the 2000 Cup of Nations which the former co-hosted with Ghana. Ghana is expected to add to Zimbabwe's misery by taking all three points against them.
Even though the tournament has not yet reached the knock-out stage, attention also seems focused on the likely output of Africa's five representatives to the June World Cup in Germany. To date, the continent's best performance at the World Cup has been the quarter-final berth achieved by Cameroun and Senegal in 1990 and 2002 respectively. Cameroun in the last World Cup hugely underperformed, having entered the tournament for the fourth consecutive time, on the back of two triumphs at the Cup of Nations (2000 and 2002) and with a team that had played together for at least three years. Tunisia, Nigeria and South Africa all failed to go past the group stage. Senegal were the surprise package. They beat then defending Champions France in the opening game and went on to the quarter-finals before bowing out to Turkey. Their strong and aggressive play received critical acclaim and players like El Hadji Diouf moved on to bigger clubs in Europe. But all appears to have been a nine-day wonder.
The Teranga Lions have struggled to find that 2002 form ever since. Africa's five candidates for the June World Cup in Germany represent a breath of fresh air for the African game. The three West African neighbours, Ghana, Togo and Cote d' Ivoire, as well as Angola and Tunisia have a fine opportunity to state Africa's case ever more strongly in Germany. Though it may be true that with the exception of defending champions Tunisia, Africa's four representatives have so far not shone brightly at CAN 2006, their chances at the Mundial cannot be dismissed outright. Ghana for example have been severely undone in Egypt by the absence of midfielders Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and striker Asamoah Gyan but are still soldiering on bravely. Essien, Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah would form a potent midfield in Germany that can hold its own against any team on the day. Ghana's defence was also majestic in the qualifiers, letting in only four goals, the lowest in the entire FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Cote d'Ivoire were the most exciting team during the African qualifiers. In Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane, they have a solid attack that can create problems for any defence on any day. They may have some frailties at the back but their exciting play in midfield and attack could well bring them good results. Tunisia are not new to the World Cup and have kept the same team for the past three years. The experience and tactical awareness of their French coach, Roger Lemerre, who guided the French team to European glory in 2000 and two consecutive Confederations Cup victories, would help them immensely in Germany.
Togo and Angola also have nothing to fear. Being underdogs in their groups can only spur them on to cause shocks. Togo can take heart from Senegal's victory over France and also do same. Angola likewise can take advantage of their underdog status to cause surprises in their group. Victory over former colonial masters Portugal can only serve to give them the necessary boost.
For now, let Africa keep its fingers crossed and the rest of the world wait for a true African performance in Germany in June.