Pele predicted an African World Cup win before 2000 - what went wrong?

Roger Milla was a huge African star in 1990 but what has happened since?
Roger Milla was a huge African star in 1990 but what has happened since?
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Pele said that an African side would win the World Cup before the turn of the last century, Alex Johnson investigates what exactly has gone wrong...

When Pele made his prediction it was at a time when football in Africa was making progress. Tunisia was the first African nation to win a World Cup game in 1978 and, in 1986, Morocco became the first to reach the knockout stages. Then it was the turn of Cameroon as they beat Argentina in the opening game in 1990, before Milla's goals inspired their run to the last eight. Over the last 24 years the African teams have flattered to deceive and that momentum has stalled.

Legendary Brazilian Pele famously predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup by the year 2000.

That comment has been met with much derision over the years and now, 14 years past that date, we are no closer to a team from the continent lifting the trophy. The reality is that no team from Africa has come close and, more than two decades after it happened, arguably the biggest impact an African player has had on a World Cup tournament was the sight of 38-year-old Roger Milla jigging at the corner flag, when he scored his goals at Italia 90.

The quarter finals remain the furthest inroads made into the World Cup by teams from Africa. Cameroon made that stage in 1990 while Senegal and Ghana, in 2002 and 2010 respectively, remain the only other African sides to have troubled the latter stages of the tournament. Ghana came closest of any to making the semi-finals and were unlucky as only a late missed penalty prevented them getting past Uruguay in South Africa.

When Pele made his prediction it was at a time when football in Africa was making progress. Tunisia was the first African nation to win a World Cup game in 1978 and, in 1986, Morocco became the first to reach the knockout stages. Then it was the turn of Cameroon as they beat Argentina in the opening game in 1990, before Milla's goals inspired their run to the last eight. Over the last 24 years the African teams have flattered to deceive and that momentum has stalled.

At USA 94, Nigeria were well-fancied to continue the African progress and looked good when getting out of the group, before going out to Italy in the second round. Four years later the Super Eagles beat Spain, before crashing out 4-1 against Denmark. But elsewhere at France 98 it was a disaster as the continent's other representatives - Cameroon, South Africa and Tunisia - didn't win a game between them.

Senegal bucked the downward trend in 2002, when they shocked the holders France in the group and made it to the quarter-finals. But elsewhere it was disappointing again as Tunisia, Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon all went out in the first round. Come 2006, only Ghana made it out of the group and it was the same story in 2010, when the World Cup took place in South Africa.

The hosts failed to make it to the knockout stages along with the Ivory Coast, while Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon all finished bottom of their groups. There is a huge pool of talent across Africa - larger than ever before - with players lighting up the biggest leagues across Europe. It is that level of quality that makes football fans from all over the world tune in in their billions to watch the African Cup of Nations. It is a hugely competitive tournament and its appeal is spreading rapidly, with growing TV coverage and sponsorship from leading global brands.

The decision to change the years it takes place, in order to avoid a World Cup clash, was planned in the hope of improving African performances at World Cups, and it may not be until Russia 2018 or Qatar 2022 when that starts to make an impact. The fact that nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal - perennial big-hitters in the African Cup of Nations - have not even qualified for this World Cup is testament to the competitive nature of football on the continent.

The stark reality is that Africa has 52 countries competing to get into the World Cup but only five qualification places are available - compared to 13 for Europe. That means some of Africa's top stars regularly miss out on playing on the world stage, and arguably their most talented ever player - George Weah - never had the opportunity to grace a World Cup stage during his illustrious career. If the problem is not the talent pool, then you have to look deeper to try to discover why African sides often disappoint.

Indeed it tends to be areas like discipline and focus, both on and off the pitch, which blights them in the biggest international competition. Consider Cameroon and their poor showing at Brazil 2014 as they limped out of the group with three defeats and possibly the worst performances seen this World Cup. Before the tournament started they refused to travel in protest over the size of bonuses and once the action got underway, Benoit Assou-Ekotto head-butted team-mate Benjamin Moukandjo as they went down 4-0 to Croatia.

These types of stories are not unfamiliar, as Samuel Eto'o has previously been banned for playing for Cameroon after he was accused of inciting teammates not to play in a row over bonus payments. Problems with discipline and a clash of big egos within the camps seem to have a negative effect on the sides and prevent them from making progress. Of all the African sides who have under-performed at World Cup finals, it is Ivory Coast who have disappointed the most.

They failed to make it out of the group stage in both 2006 and 2010, although in truth they were cursed with tough draws, but have got a bit of an easier ride this time around. When you look at their team-sheet they have world beaters like Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba and a squad brimming with players who excel in Europe's top leagues. It is a golden generation for the Ivory Coast and Brazil 2014 is the last chance for those players to prove themselves on the global stage. However, in order for a bunch of talented players to flourish they need to be a team and in an environment that promotes unity and coming together for the greater good - and that seems to be an area where African sides come unstuck.

Ivory Coast, like many other African sides over the last 20 years, has a reputation as a collection of individuals, rather than a collective unit and for a side to be successful at a World Cup, no one star can be bigger than the team. Whatever happens at Brazil 2014 to Africa's five representatives - Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Algeria - it remains a work in progress.

African football is progressing on the global stage; they are producing better players and more of them. The issue now seems to be individual progression compared to team progression. The top players from Africa excel for their club teams but under-perform for the national team, and it is these areas where work needs to be done. Until that collective identity can be found and nurtured, the fear is that African teams will continue to let themselves down in World Cups.

Alex Johnson,

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