Thursday, November 28, 2013

In it, But Win it? #7 Africa's Best Hopes

Edison Erantes De Nacimento (known to his friends as Pele) once predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup by 2000. Of course, Pele has never really been proven as terribly accurate as a pundit, and four cups after his prediction expired, Africa's still without a top 4 finish to their name.

Will this year's batch of qualifiers flip the script and prove Pele right, right in front of him? Probably not, but let's make a bunch of overly eager predictions about them anyway!
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Contender Credentials: The Fennec Foxes have slowly established themselves as the preeminent power in North African football, and as a xenophobic French population grumbles about foreigners on the national team, they're getting more and more top flight talent to play for the mother land including fast rising defenders Faouxi Ghoulam (22, St. Etienne) and Aissa Mandi (22, Reims) and the Inter Milan based duo Saphir Taider (MF) and Ishak Belfodi (F).
Pretender Problems: With the decline of Morocco and the tumult around Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it's not terribly surprising that Algeria is the top North African team. More tellingly, while this is their second straight Cup, their most experienced player (DF/Captian Majid Bougherra) has twice as many caps as the second most experienced talent. So "experience" is a bit of a misnomer for the side.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Buoyed by a raft of young talent and minimal expectations, Algeria stuns a few teams in the group stages to make a stirring run to the Round of 16.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Manager Vahid Halilhodzic fails to mention a curfew, the young Algerians go out partying in Brazil and a sleazy James Franco with corn rows turns them into the subject of Spring Breakers 2: Brazilian Boogaloo.
Prediction: There's lots of talent in Algeria's line-up, but there's lots of talent in everyone's line-up, and it doesn't make much of a difference (4th in Group)
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Contender Credentials: With their trip to Brazil the Indomitable Lions will have made it to 7 of the last 9 world Cups. The quietly, doggedly, consistent West Africans are led by their greatest player since the legendary Roger Milla, Samuel Eto'o (currently making a major comeback with Chelsea). They'll be unlikely to quiver in the glare of the global spotlight.
Pretender Problems: The guys who played in Spain in 1982 aren't still on the pitch, worse still, neither are the players who gave Cameroon its first/only play-off round appearance in 1990. A team that often relies on Eto'o as their primary option still hasn't developed another forward who could partner with him, or take the torch once he makes his exit.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Eto'o's return to form inspires his younger teammates to greater heights and younger playmakers Alexandre Song (Barcelona) and Eynog Enoh (Ajax) use their Champion's league experience to set up another run to the quarters.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Eto'o gets hurt in training, a young backline gets gobbled up by faster opponents and Cameroon crashes out in the group stage, again.
Prediction: The Lions are always good for a historical montage, but they won't be making new memories in Brazil. (4th in Group)

File:FIF NewCrest.pngCote D'Ivoire
Contender Credentials: Ranked 17th in the World, the Ivorians are easily among the worlds' best teams. They've also been Africa's most impressive side for most of the past decade, making the quarter finals of every African Cup of Nations since 2006 (5 straight), and boast a star-studded line-up from their golden generation: Drogba, the Toures (Yaya and Kolou), Zokora and Barry.
Pretender Problems: The Golden Generation is starting to resemble the Golden Girls, which isn't much of a problem in the haphazard "we'll-give-you-credit-for-whatever-matches-you-play" world of the FIFA Rankings, but starts to look suspicious when stacked up against a host of other sterling international line-ups.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: The best African players on the planet turn up for one last hurrah, while training in a new generation of talent (Wilfred Bony, Serge Aurier, Ismael Diomande) en route to a stunning final victory over Brazil in the Final.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: There's a split in camp between the cool-older kids and the snot-faced tykes, there's no cute girls camp nearby to sneak into and build morale, the summer ends with an unsatisfying poop joke.
Prediction: There's too much talent for the Elephants to be denied a play-off berth in 3-straight-cups, but that's as far as they go. Second-in-Group, Round of 16

File:Ghana FA.pngGhana
Contender Credentials: If Cote D'Ivoire has been the best African side in recent history, Ghana has been the most World Cup Savvy side. And one could argue (as I often have argued) that they were robbed of a semi-final spot by Luis Suarez. The team seems to have only gotten deeper as the years have progressed and with local coach Kwesi Appiah on the sidelines, they've been in great form of late.
Pretender Problems: Appiah's a fan-base pleaser to be sure, but he seemed to alienate familiar faces like Kevin Prince Boateng, Michael Essien and Sully Muntari. And if the Black Stars are as good as I claim, then why haven't they won a major trophy since 1982?
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Essien and Muntari take it upon themselves to lead younger players in the midfield and defense, while Asamoah Gyan runs rampant beside Dede/Jordan Ayew up top and the Black Stars live up to the title of "The Brazil of Africa" in Brazil, taking home the continents first cup.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: All the sterling runs from Gyan, Ayew and Dominic Adiyiah mean nothing when the defense and goalkeeping is spotty, and Ghana can't escape another difficult group.
Prediction: Keeping up the tradition of going one better every four years (and breaking American hearts every four years), the Black Stars top the US in the Quarterfinals and finish 4th over all.

Contender Credentials: The Super Eagles were the first African side to advance from the Group Stages in consecutive world cups, and can also boast of being the top team on the continent as the reigning Cup of Nations Winner. They'll know Brazil better than most teams after the Confederations' Cup last summer, and they have one of the brightest young stars in African football in midfielder John Obi Mikel
Pretender Problems: Mikel can't do it all himself (as their poor showing in the Confederations' Cup proved). Nigeria has very few scoring options up top and a relatively untested batch of defenders in the back, meaning that, in all likelihood Mikel will have to do it all himself. Add to that, the total unpredictability of the Nigerian FA and it's impossible to say what Nigeria will do next.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Goalkeeper/Captain Vincent Enemya finds the magical words to motivate a rag tag bunch of youngsters around one superb player, all while he finds love in an unlikely place, teaches the president a thing or two and learns a valuable lesson about growing up.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: The surly president blusters and fusses, the young players wilt under the pressure, Enemya snaps and goes on a profane tirade and John Obi-Mikel ponders changing his citizenship.
Prediction:They play soccer matches, sometimes well, sometimes not well. Goodluck Jonathan wears a cool hat. (3rd in Group)

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