by Murad Ahmed - 03/31/2006
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Africa's heavyweight soccer nations have had a fantastic run up to this year's World Cup. The continent's top teams were involved in the African Nations Cup this January - Africa's premier tournament. The competition's host country, Egypt, stormed to victory, winning the tournament for a record fifth time. Cameroon looked scintillating on their way to the semi-finals. Their Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o scored a series of jaw-dropping goals on the way to winning the tournament's Golden Boot. Nigeria looked unusually solid and professional. Last World Cup's surprise package Senegal can point to some bizarre referring decisions and bad luck as reasons why they crashed out in the semi-finals to Egypt.
Africa's top dogs looked in top form and ready to take on the World. The only problem is none of them will be making the trip to Germany.
This year, four World Cup debutants in Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola and Ghana, as well as Tunisia, will represent Africa. Indeed, the only side to perform well at the African Nations Cup were Ivory Coast who are spear-headed in attack by Chelsea's Didier Drogba. They made the African Nations final and only lost on penalties after playing out a tense 0-0 draw with Egypt. Dynamic and adventurous, Ivory Coast can also boast a solid defence marshalled by Kolo Toure who has starred in Arsenal's stellar performances in this season's European Champions League. They may look good on the pitch, but on paper Ivory Coast's prospects look as bad as Drogba's diving. They have been drawn in the this year's "Group of Death" alongside two of the tournaments favourites Argentina and Holland, as well as Serbia and Montenegro who went undefeated in a World Cup qualifying group that included Spain. With no previous World Cup pedigree, and facing the stiffest of opposition, it's easy to see why Ivory Coast have been placed as 100/1 outsiders for the tournament, and 9/1 just to get out of the group.
The probable African doom looks even gloomier when you turn to the other nations. Two of the debutants, Togo and Angola were placed in the same first round group in the African Nations Cup and both failed to qualify from the group. Lousy form like that has made Angola 400/1 outsiders for the World Cup. There should be no way for them to exit even one of the weaker World Cup groups containing Portugal, Mexico and Iran.
Togo fare slightly better in the betting, at 350/1 for the tournament, but are in disarray on and off the field. Former Nigerian captain Stephen Keshi performed a minor miracle in guiding Togo to the World Cup and was given the African Coach of the Year award as a result. But Togo's poor showing at the African Nations resulted in his sacking - a fact he only found out through the media. Instead of backing the new coach, the German Otto Pfister, some of the team has called for the reinstatement of Keishi. But Togo's star player, Arsenal striker Sheyi Adebayor, publicly criticised his teammates for this move saying: "If you are a player, you should remain a player and not act as if you are the president of the federation". Just ending the World Cup on speaking terms would be an achievement for Togo's players.
The other African hopes for World Cup glory, Ghana and Tunisia look more likely to do well. Both are amongst the continent's sleeping giants - never quite reaching their true potential on the world stage. Ghana, at 250/1 for the tournament, boast some world class players such as Chelsea's Michael Essien. However, they are in a tough group alongside Italy, Czech Republic and the USA, all of whom can boast FIFA rankings that will look imposing to the best of teams, let alone World Cup new kids in Ghana.
That leaves at Tunisia at 300/1 as the African team - in this pundit's opinion - most likely to progress in the tournament. They face Spain (serial underachievers), Ukraine (World Cup newbies), and Saudi Arabia (perennially rubbish) in the first round. Their African Nations effort was creditable given that they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage on penalties by a strong Nigeria. Organised in defence, Tunisia can boast a thing that teams crave, a top-class Brazilian striker in the exotically named Francileudo dos Santos. He may only be Brazilian-born with Tunisian nationality, but I'd rather have a fake Brazilian than a real Tunisian in my World Cup team.