We re still flying high with our African winning football team. Tomorrow the nation s parliament will be the latest site for some more feting. But people have started to look ahead, specifically to the 2010 World Cup.
It is truly amazing how Egypt, which has won the Africa Cup of Nations a record six times, including the last two, has gone to the World Cup only twice – the last time being 18 years ago and the first participation before most of us were born, in 1934.
While we have found the door to the World Cup difficult to open, other Arab and African countries find it wide open. Cameroon has been there the most times – five. In its first appearance, in 1982, it tied the three games it played, the same as group mate Italy, but Italy went to the next stage on goal difference and eventually won the cup. Cameroon s best showing was in 1990 when it shocked defending champions Argentina in the opener before coming ever so close to beating England which would have put it in the semi-finals. In 2002 Senegal too almost made it to the last four.
Morocco and Tunisia have gone four times apiece. Tunisia beat Mexico 3-1 in 1978 for the first Arab victory ever in the World Cup and Morocco did another Arab first in 1986, finishing first in its group which included England, Portugal and Poland.
Nigeria s three appearances included impressive wins over Spain and Bulgaria in 1998.
Of Algeria s two participations, the 1982 debut is memorable for beating West Germany 2-1, then the infamous fixed match between West Germany and Austria to get both into the second round and keep Algeria out. It was after this fiasco that the third game of a group stage of all major football championships are played simultaneously to help prevent rigging.
In 1990, Egypt did well to draw 1-1 with Holland, the defending European champions. But against Ireland a dour 0-0 draw forced fuming Irish coach Jackie Charlton, brother of more famous brother Bobby, to state the following at a post press conference:
“If you make it to the World Cup you are expected to play.
“I hate playing countries like Egypt.
“I thought I had seen everything as a player and coach but never did I see a team play 90 minutes without shooting once on goal.
Sour grapes because Ireland could only tie. Anyway, there are those who say that FIFA came up with the rule that a goalkeeper cannot use hands to catch a ball passed to him by a teammate right after this match that saw Egyptian players take the ball up field for 10 yards or so, then return it to goalkeeper Ahmed Shubeir almost the entire match.
Rounding up, South Africa has gone to the World Cup twice and Zaire, Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Angola one each, the last four making their only appearance just recently, in 2006.
In Asia, Saudi Arabia has done what we can only dream of: go to four consecutive World Cups beginning in 1994.
What s just as amazing is that Egypt did the hard part but became invisible when it got easier. When the World Cup was taking just two African countries, we made it, in 1990. When FIFA added one more African country, in 1998, then five beginning in 2002, we have been shut out.
For a country like five-time champions Brazil, the only country to have gone to every World Cup, just going to the World Cup is not an end in itself.
Brazil s aim is to always win the World Cup, not just be there.
Sometimes it s not a good idea to go to the World Cup. There have been some embarrassing blowouts: Zaire drowned 9-0 to Yugoslavia in 1974 (the third worst defeat in World Cup history), Germany crushed the UAE 7-0 in 1990 and did one better against Saudi Arabia in 2002.
Why we do so well in the Africa Cup but cannot beat the same foes in the same continent for a World Cup ticket is a mystery but most people point to concentration. The Africa cup is six matches played in three weeks. That needs concentration. World Cup qualifiers are played at a snail s pace with sometimes months separating matches. That takes away concentration.
To go to 2010, we must get by DR Congo, Malawi and Djibouti before going on to the more serious second and final group stage to be determined.For the first time, six African countries will be playing in the World Cup, the hosts South Africa and five others. A good opportunity if there was one.