By Robson Sharuko
Harare - When Africa’s five representatives at the FIFA World Cup plunge into battle from next week, they could all draw inspiration from the success of a band of Tunisian footballers who, 40 years ago, became the first group of soccer stars from this continent to win a match at the global showcase.
Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco will represent the continent at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals with an entire continent backing them for success in a tournament where African countries have always found the going tough.
While African footballers have won the FIFA Under-17 and FIFA Under-20 tournaments in the past, no country from this continent has ever conquered the FIFA World Cup with the best run by a representative from the continent being a place in the quarter-finals.
Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, led by the immortal Roger Milla, reached the quarter-finals at Italia ’90 before losing 2-3 to England in a five-goal thriller in which, at one stage, they were minutes of making the semi-finals for a showdown against eventual champions West Germany.
The Lions of Teranga of Senegal charmed the globe at the 2002 FIFA World Cup where, in their beautiful adventure, they even stunned the then World Champions France 1-0 in their opening match before reaching the quarter-finals where they lost to Turkey after conceding a golden goal.
Then, the Black Stars of Ghana reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and came within just a successful penalty kick conversion, in extra-time, of becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals in their match against Uruguay at Soccer City in Johannesburg.
However, Asamoah Gyan fired his last-gasp penalty against the crossbar and the South Americans recovered to beat the West Africans in the penalty shootout lottery that followed to book a place in the semi-finals of that tournament.
Eight years later, the odds of an African country soaring to glory at the World Cup in Russia are not good, even though there is an abundance of talent within the ranks of the countries who will represent the continent at this showcase.
African players like Mohamed Salah of Egypt have transformed themselves into superstars in the past European season while his Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane also thrived leading the attack at English giants Liverpool and leading them into the final of the Champions League.
Times, too, have changed.
Forty years ago, the African teams were not expected to win a match at the FIFA World Cup finals and, four years earlier, the then Zaire had been hammered by Yugoslavia and lost all their three matches at the showcase in West Germany.
But Tunisia changed all that one day in Argentina at the 1978 FIFA World Cup when they made history as the first African side to win a match at the tournament following an impressive 3-1 victory over Mexico at the Estadio Dr Lisandro de la Torre in Rosario on June 2 that year.
Ahead of the match, Tunisian coach Abdelmajid Chetali’s remarks showed why, when it comes to the World Cup, a special bond exists between countries across the continent when he told the global media that while Mexico were playing for their country, his team was representing an entire continent.
Things did not appear going according to plan for them when Mexico took the lead through a 45th-minute penalty by Arturo Vazquez but the Tunisians refused to budge and came storming back into the contest through goals by Ali Kaabi in the 55th minute, Nejib Ghommidh in the 79th minute and Mokhtar Doureb three minutes from time. “We arrived Argentina with a lot of fear,” midfielder Tarak Dhiab, who was the star of that show for the Tunisians as he conducted the orchestra, told BBC Sport Online.
“Zaire had done pretty badly in the previous finals and many felt we would suffer the same fate. We were given no chance. But we prepared very well and were confident.”
Dhiab was no ordinary footballer and arrived at the World Cup having been voted the 1977 African Footballer of the Year, the crown that Salah wears today after he edged his Liverpool teammate in the race for honours.
The Tunisian group also featured defending champions Germany and Poland.
“African football has had a progressive run of FIFA World Cup highlights - winning the battle for a unique place at Mexico 1970, winning a first-ever game in the finals in 1978, progressing past the first round for the first time in 1986, reaching the quarter-finals in 1990 and fielding a record six teams at the tournament,” FIFA said on their official website in the countdown to the start of the show in Russia.
“Each step along the way has been a significant bridgehead for the African game, bringing the continent from a level of footballing poverty up to the high table.
“We look at the dramatic story of an unlikely Tunisian victory that became a key moment in the development of the continent’s game.
“Tunisia’s win over Mexico in Rosario at the 1978 finals was a massive breakthrough for the confidence of the African game.
The first-ever World Cup win for an African side led directly to an extra place at Spain 1982 for the continent, but just as importantly allowed future teams to set higher benchmarks and aim for bigger success.
“The win by the World Cup debutantes was as emphatic as it was historic on a day when the African game came of age.”
The triumphant coach, Chetali, also had some remarkable quotes for his team’s finest hour.
“The French have their 68ers, revolutionary students making their mark on the social-cultural landscape. We have our 78ers, a generation of footballers who were outstanding,” he said.
Forty years later, another group of African representatives plunge into battle on the biggest stage of them all and, unlike the Congolese in 1974, they now know – thanks to the Tunisians’ success in 1978 – that teams from this continent can win matches at this showcase.