Harare - They went, they fought and, once again, they failed to conquer. Unlike the previous adventure at the FIFA World Cup in the past 36 years, the doomed World Cup campaign in Russia by African representatives is generating a lot of negativity as the continent battles to count its losses.
For the first time since the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain, Africa failed to send a representative nation into the knockout stages of the FIFA World Cup after all the five countries – Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt – were swept by the tide in the group stages.
It has caused a huge storm in Africa, with a number of experts, including former stars from the continent, labelling it a step backwards for the continent whose teams arrived in Russia amid a wave of expectations that one of them could provide a Cinderella story for the tournament.
There was a reason for the optimism.
The CAF leadership, under Madagascar football leader Ahmad Ahmad broke with tradition and came up with an initiative where they secured US$10 million advance payment from FIFA to help the five African countries who featured at the World Cup in their preparations.
FIFA agreed to give each of the five countries a US$2 million advance payment each on their World Cup prize money to ensure they paid their players bonuses and related payments before the tournament so that the campaign by the nations from this continent would not be blighted by protests by the players over unpaid dues.
Four years ago, the Ghanaian government was forced to send a plane load full of US$3 million to the Black Stars at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil after the players protested ahead of a crucial game.
Ahmad and his CAF lieutenants also scrapped the 2019 AFCON qualifiers, which were scheduled for March, and instead used that window for the African teams – which were going to the World Cup – to use it to prepare for their Russian adventure.
The rise to prominence of a number of African football stars, in recent months, had fuelled the optimism with both Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane shining brightly for Liverpool as they helped the English giants reach the UEFA Champions League final this year.
Salah, the Egyptian superstar, was hailed as a rising global football icon this year after a defining season in the Liverpool colours saw him being named the best footballer in that country’s Premiership and, in the process, relegating such star names like Belgian stars Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne into the background.
But Salah’s injury in the final of the UEFA Champions League, when he landed awkwardly after a challenge by Real Madrid and Spain defender Sergio Ramos, meant that his impact on the tournament was not as pronounced as many would have wanted even if he scored two goals for Egypt.
Nigerian legend, Nwankwo Kanu, had predicted that an African team would do well at this World Cup.
“The FIFA World Cup is the greatest football tournament on the planet – every team dreams of being part of it and I am sure it will be a very special event in Russia,” Kanu told the Daily Mirror of England ahead of the tournament.
“Nigeria will be a big surprise, for sure. We have good young and talented players; they are hungry for victories and want to do well – for themselves and for the country.”
But the Nigerians melted under pressure, in a do-or-die game against Argentina, and conceded a late goal to lose 1-2 in a match where a draw would have taken them through to the knockout stages.
Tunisia lost two of their three matches, winning their first World Cup game in 40 years with a 2-1 victory over Panama, Egypt lost all their three group games, including a 1-2 defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia, Senegal were knocked out by the Fair Play rules while Morocco also didn’t win a game in Russia.
“Africa is going to be successful one day but we need to think again how we approach these big competitions,” African legend Didier Drogba told BBC Sport.
“It’s a big step back.
“I also think it is a chance for all the African teams and for the African Confederation maybe to reconsider the strategy and how we want to go forward. What do we want to do in the next World Cup? We have the potential, we have the money to develop, but we need more than that.
“We need to have the consistency and the structure of the European teams and the South American teams. “We are going to be successful one day but we need to think again how we approach these big competitions.”
But African teams were not the only ones licking their wounds at this World Cup which delivered a number of shock results with champions Germany failing to even clear the group stages for the first time in 80 years after a shock 0-2 defeat at the hands of South Korea.
It marked the first time the Germans have failed to progress to the knockout stages of the tournament since 1938 and, interestingly, only five percent of the people who now call themselves Germans, around the world, had been born by then.
It also marked the first time the Germans have failed to make the top three of the World Cup in 20 years with the last time this had happened coming in 1998 when they crashed to a shock 0-3 defeat at the hands of Croatia in the quarter-finals.
Argentina, who won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986 and reached the final in 1990 and 2014, only squeezed into the knockout stages with a late goal from defender Marcos Rojo but their luck finally ran out as they were humbled 2-4 by the pace of the young French side.
Lionel Messi, considered one of the greatest players of all-time, scored only one goal throughout his adventure in Russia and Cristiano Ronaldo, another of the great players, and his Portuguese side, also fell in the Round of 16.