In the end, it was the bloody yellow cards that did in the Lions of Teranga. For the first time in the history of the FIFA World Cup, the tie-breaker for knockout round qualifying came down to the disciplinary records of two otherwise evenly-matched sides: Senegal’s one yellow card against Poland, one against Colombia and three against Japan meant that it was Japan that qualified second out of Group H.
Four Japanese yellow cards versus the six for Senegal. It was that close.
It was a disappointing way to exit the World Cup for the last African side left in the tournament. The coach Aliou Cissé was visibly gutted after the game, saying: “I do not know if this rule is cruel or not, but I can’t ask my players to jump on the court to not receive yellows. It’s the law of football, the law of fair play, and we had less points in that aspect and we have to accept it. In any case, these are the rules of the game and we have to respect them, but we would have preferred to be eliminated in another way.”
This was the first time since 1986 that every African side in the competition was eliminated in the group stages, setting off a chorus of disappointed sighs and tut-tuts. However, this stat actually hides a different sort of reality: in these competitions, luck plays a tremendous role, and African sides collectively acquitted themselves far better than they did in previous tournaments. What usually happens is that one African side will make it to the round of 16 or quarter-finals, while the rest flop very badly.
With Senegal out, France is the only remaining African nation in the #WorldCup.
— Khaled Beydoun (@KhaledBeydoun) June 28, 2018
In 2014, Cameroon finished dead last in Group A, managing only one goal in three matches. Ivory Coast finished third, with just one win and two losses. Ghana finished dead last in their group. Algeria and Nigeria’s four points were enough for a second spot, but the sides couldn’t make it past the round of 16 against Germany and France respectively.
The story of the 2010 World Cup is a familiar one to us, with Ghana crashing out of the quarterfinals under very controversial circumstances. (South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon didn’t make it out of the group.)
In 2006, Ivory Coast finished third, as did Angola and Tunisia. Togo finished last. Ghana finished second, and were soundly beaten by the Brazilians in the round of 16.
Japan went through on “fair play points” i.e. they had fewer yellow cards.
They spent the last 10 minutes of the game just kicking the ball around in their own half.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) June 28, 2018
The pattern goes all the way back to the 1986 World Cup, when the entire continent of Africa only had two slots in the tournament.
Every African nation/team has its own problems. They shouldn’t be grouped as one and the solutions for one of them isn’t for all of them.
— Salim Masoud Said (@salimosaid) June 28, 2018
This isn’t what happened this time around. For the first time, a majority of the African sides can count themselves extremely unlucky. Morocco played beautiful football with a lot of heart. They lost to an own goal against Iran in the first match, and the oomph went out of the team. Nigeria came within a whisker’s length of qualifying past Argentina, but were stopped by goal scored by a defender. Mohamed Salah’s injury meant that there simply was no chance for Egypt in the World Cup. One wonders how things would have gone had he been fully fit. Tunisia did have a pretty forgettable time of it.
For once, the results belied the performances put up by the sides. Senegal and Nigera both can look towards the next African Cup of Nations and 2022 World Cup with relish. All the African sides can take lessons with them: the importance of scoring when you have the upper hand. The importance of the ability to close out tough games. The obvious benefits of marrying good organisation with good athleticism.
Cissé has already identified what needs to happen next: “I am certain that one day an African country will win the World Cup,” he said after the match against Poland.
“It was some 25 years ago that African countries regularly came just to be a part of the World Cup. I think that things have developed but it’s more complicated in our continent – we have realities that are not evident in other continents. We trust our football, we have no complex, we have great players, now we need African coaches for our football to go ahead.”
My fear though is that the World Cup will feel harder for Africans sides for structural reasons – at least for one more tournament. It is notoriously hard to qualify for the tournament out of Africa: 54 sides have to battle it out for five slots, and then thanks to FIFA’s rankings witchcraft, those sides are always drawn into unfavourable groups. (By comparison, up to six teams can qualify through the South American confederation, from a pool of 10 countries. Europe’s 52 countries were allocated 14 places in the current tournament.) Nigeria has been in the same group as Argentina in five out of six tournament appearances. From 2026 onward, the tournament will feature 48 teams, and Africa will gain four new slots, while Europe will gain two.
Place aside the lamentations about how poorer-quality sides will make it into the tournament – the expanded format means that the prospects of the strongest African sides doing even better than the current trend of one or two countries making it into the early stages of the knockouts.
Put it this way, we can suffer the prospect of Bafana Bafana doing poorly in 2026 in the knowledge that the path to the ultimate victory for a Senegal, Nigeria or Morocco will be that much easier. I am hopeful for African football.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.