There is always a side that exceeds expectations and graces the world stage with a true underdog story. G6 Journal’s Heath Young searches for one such overachiever to come out of Africa.
At least one squad will whip their faithful into a frenzy of swirling national colors and pride as they surge far deeper into this tournament than anyone expected. Herein lies the fun; trying to predict whom the Cinderella slipper will fit. I’ll get the guesswork underway with a review of the African contingent, in the hopes that we’ll have another unheralded squad provide the fun and fireworks that Nigeria, Senegal and others have in the recent past.
The highest expectations must fall on Tunisia as the only seasoned entrant and the winners of the 2004 African Cup of Nations (followed up by a strong, but unsuccessful title defense in the most recent event). With quality players at most positions including Ajax defender Hatem Trabelsi anchoring the back as team captain, Adel Chedli in the midfield and Santos and Jaziri providing potent attacking options; perhaps they are the most balanced of the African contingent.
Togo: The story here is Emmanuel Adebayor. The tall, lanky striker doesn’t look the typical footballer, but is representative of the new breed of big, fast players making their way into the ranks these days and he is a lot to handle. Adebayor may be young, but he’s not unaccustomed to being in the spotlight after proving himself at French side Monaco and subsequently making the move to Arsenal in the EPL. His 11 goals in qualifying certainly have him marked as the man to carry the hopes of Togo through the group stages.
Angola is relatively short on star power compared to its African colleagues, and it is also probably the most inexperienced team coming out of the African zone. However, team cohesion they do not lack. A number of players making up the squad are veterans of the teams that Luis Oliveira Goncalves coached to much success at the youth level. It was this cohesion and familiarity that got Angola through qualification, pulling out tough wins in closely contested matches.
The Ghana Black Stars may be in their first World Cup finals, but they have an extensive history in African football and a couple of star players in their ranks. Their strength is in the midfield with Chelsea star Michael Essien. Leadership joins Essien in the middle in the form of captain Stephen Appiah. Ghana can put the ball in the net as well via Matthew Amoah.
The Ivory Coast does not have much of a history in international football to prepare them for their first World Cup appearance. What they do have is Didier Drogba. With Drogba’s high profile success at Chelsea and his 9 goals in qualifying, though, it’s easy to forget that this squad also boasts several other known internationals. Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue are teammates at Arsenal, and several of Ivory Coast’s Elephants have been playing top flight football in France. This team will be a showcase of class players, but they are in for a tough group stage having to contend with the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands.
So can any of these upstart nations make some noise in Germany? Tunisia could be in a position to do some damage with the combination of balance, quality and a slightly less imposing competition by comparison in Group H. Togo might have a shot with the quality of Adebayor up front and a good supporting cast, though they will have to contend with the Koreans and Swiss to accompany favorite France into the second round. Unfortunately for Angola, pride and spirit will not be enough to get them out of Group D. They will hang tough, but will ultimately be outmatched by seasoned and talented teams Mexico, Iran and Portugal. Ghana will meet a similar fate. Though accomplished players in their own right, the nerves of being in their first World Cup will be too much for them as they face arguably the toughest group in the competition with giants Italy, the Czech Republic and the United States. Though Ivory Coast will be one of the more entertaining teams to watch, I’m not sure they can ride the D train through to the second round without being derailed by Argentina and the Netherlands, but when you can score as they can, anything is possible.
That’s how I see this collection of African qualifiers, a particularly interesting group with 4 of the 5 making their freshman World Cup appearance. They play an exciting brand of football, and with a little luck to accompany their talent, one or two could potentially surprise and graduate to the second round.