They can play, but they can never win

Bursting with talent and eternally tipped as the coming force, African countries won't win this Worl

Pelé gave the World Cup some of its greatest moments, but he also burdened it with one of its greatest clichés: in 1977 he announced that an African nation would win the trophy by the end of the 20th century, a prediction that he, and Africa, have never been allowed to forget. After events proved him wrong he extended the deadline to the year 2010, but he will be wrong again. At this year's finals in Germany, none of the five African countries that qualified (Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Tunisia) is going to win, indeed it will be a surprise if any make it beyond the group stages.

The problem is that, of the five, only Tunisia has ever played in the World Cup finals before. One of the things a country needs in order to have a realistic prospect of coming out on top in a tournament such as this is experience. For any African nation to have had a chance of fulfilling Pelé's prediction, it would need to have been qualifying consistently in the intervening years and making steady progress up the ladder of international football. But no African team has ever made this kind of steady progress. Instead, as this year's competition shows, success in African football seems to be distributed more or less at random. It comes and it goes, without leaving any deep roots behind.

Still, there are some people, including the great man himself, who think that Pelé almost got it right. Something else that teams usually need to win the World Cup is home advantage, and in 2010 the tournament will be held in Africa for the first time. Only twice in its history has the World Cup been won by a team from outside the continent in which it was being played (in 1958 and 2002 - and both times the winners were Brazil). So 2010 is surely Africa's chance, and Pelé has recently suggested that in four years' time an African team ought finally to pull it off. But which one? The hosts, South Africa, are in disarray: they failed to qualify for this year's tournament and did not win a single match at the recent African Cup of Nations, where they failed to score a goal. The winners of that tournament, Egypt, triumphed in large part because they were hosting the event; the 2010 World Cup will be at the wrong end of the continent for them. The old powerhouses of African football - Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal - are too busy recriminating about their failures this year to plan effectively for 2010. In addition, Nigeria, potentially the strongest contenders in four years' time, are on the verge of being banned from international football because of a serious falling out between the head of the country's FA and its sports minister. The World Cup in 2010 may be Africa's best chance, but it is impossible to identify a country that looks capable of taking it.

Yet the irony is that while African national teams have been failing to live up to Pelé's expectations, individual African players have been making huge advances. The opening up of global markets in football, as in everything else, has meant that many of the historical barriers to success have come down: if you are good enough and cheap enough someone will find you; and if they can find you young enough, overseas clubs will be willing to nurture talent in ways that national federations cannot possibly match.

A number of the Ivory Coast team (including Chelsea's Didier Drogba) spent some or all of their formative years in France, and of those who stayed at home many came through the youth academy of former French international Jean-Marc Guillou, which was designed to scour the Ivory Coast for raw talent, train it up in state-of-the-art facilities and then export it to club sides in France and elsewhere. For the lucky ones, particularly those who attract the attention of coaches such as Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho, this can be a route from the middle of nowhere to the centre of the world's sporting stage, as well as a passport to almost unimaginable riches (Ghana's Michael Essien earns more than £55,000 a week at Chelsea and represents a country in which the average annual wage is less than £300). Most of the money, though, is made by the clubs, who can pick up players at bargain-basement prices, or by the agents, facilitators and hangers-on who grease the wheels of this lucrative trade. Very little of it finds its way back to the grass roots of the game in Africa.

In many ways it is naive to expect that it should. Who has the motive to invest in the facilities that can ensure the long-lasting success of African football? African governments tend to have more important things to worry about. When they have some spare cash, they are not usually thanked by their impoverished peoples for sinking it into fancy new stadiums. The European teams that cream off the best African talent are not in the business of developing the infrastructure of the game either: what most of them care about is their sell-on fee, which is why so many young African players are picked up by lower-league teams who then dangle them in front of the big clubs in the hope of striking it rich.

Then there are the players themselves. Many African stars have seen it as their obligation to give something back to the countries of their birth. But why should they give it back to football? Some, such as the great Liberian player of the 1990s George Weah, have gone into politics; others have put their money into hospitals, schools or private businesses where it might do some immediate good. We don't expect pampered British players on £100,000 a week to invest in the roots of the game in this country. Why should we expect it of players from places whose banking systems are often in chaos and whose football associations are invariably corrupt?

What has really changed about African football over the past 30 years is not the strength in depth of the game, but the fact that it is now possible to construct relatively successful national teams in the most unlikely places. The business of plucking tomorrow's superstars out of nowhere means that everywhere has a chance of a taste of the big time, no matter how bad the local conditions. The Ivory Coast has the lowest GDP of any of the countries in this year's World Cup finals; it is also the only one whose economy actually shrank last year. Angola has been nearly destroyed by civil war. But this summer every Ivorian or Angolan who can get near a radio or television will be united in passionate attachment to their na-tional team. The unity generated by football is often superficial (think of the fleeting illusion of multiracial harmony in France after their triumph in 1998), yet who would begrudge any nation that previously had to watch all the excitement from the outside their brief moment of glory?

Ivory Coast, Angola, Ghana, Togo are the beneficiaries of the new equality at work in international football. It is an equality of luck: countries that are fortunate enough to attract the attention of the talent-spotters can now ride their luck all the way to the finals of the big competitions. And it's not only Africa that has benefited. Before they went looking in Africa the top western clubs used to scour eastern Europe, where they found all sorts of exciting players, including a striker from Kiev called Andriy Shevchenko. Now Ukraine, led by Shevchenko, are in the finals of the World Cup too. Also there for the first time are Trinidad and Tobago, their two star players nurtured in Europe - Dwight Yorke and Shaka Hislop - having dragged them out of obscurity. Even some of the best-established teams can be transformed by this kind of luck. England went from perennial also-rans to genuine contenders with the arrival of Wayne Rooney, who essentially came from nowhere as well. Rooney's rise had nothing to do with the structure of the English game, or the money being spent on coaching facilities, or the management of the FA. It was chance, the fortuitous discovery of a boy with a genius for football, knocking about on the backstreets of the Wirral. It could just as well have been the backstreets of Accra, or Port of Spain, or anywhere.

The difference is that in England there will always be someone looking for the next Rooney, and in the interim there will be enough attention lavished on the Rooney wannabes to keep the national team afloat. But in Africa the search for new players is driven by the desire for affordable labour, and when countries start to become more demanding because of the quality of the players they have produced, the talent-spotting caravan is liable to move on. The Ivory Coast has introduced new laws that forbid the trading of local players overseas until they turn 18. This may strengthen the roots of the game in the country, but more likely it will send the European clubs looking elsewhere.

The seemingly random distribution of triumph and disaster that besets African football has been exacerbated by this endless, insatiable search for the next untapped reservoir of talent. Meanwhile the national teams have come to depend more heavily on keeping their star players happy. Given the huge wage differentials between footballers who are based in Europe and those who play for African teams, and the difficulty of getting European clubs to take the African cup competitions seriously, team spirit is an increasingly difficult commodity to come by.

Long-term success in international football requires not just a few star players but strength in depth, so that when the special ones do come along there is something solid to graft them on to. In Africa, the only country to have worked hard on building up its infrastructure and football institutions is South Africa; unfortunately, South African football has not unearthed enough talented individuals to compete with the rest of the continent, never mind the rest of the world.

The only country to have achieved the kind of progress over a generation that Pelé expected of an African nation is the United States. The US team has now qualified for five World Cups in a row and got to the quarter-finals last time, where they were unluckily beaten by Germany. They are currently equal fifth in Fifa's world rankings (England are tenth; Ivory Coast, the highest ranked of the African qualifiers, are 32nd). American players are well organised and extremely efficient at what they do; they are also very well resourced, with new stadiums and training facilities going up all the time. The Americans have taken advantage of the inequity of Fifa's qualifying system for the World Cup - they only have to finish in the top three of the relatively weak CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) zone to get through - to build up their experience in international competition to the point that they now look like they belong. US football has arrived at the World Cup in a way that no African nation can match.

Despite the high ranking, though, the American team doesn't really have much more chance of actually winning the tournament this summer than one of the African teams. Their problem is that, for all their organisation and efficiency, they lack the truly outstanding individuals that are needed to beat the best in the world. But that may be about to change. One of the most exciting prospects in world football is the 16-year-old Ghanaian-born Freddy Adu, who emigrated to the US with his parents and became an American citizen in 2003. Teen prodigies don't always live up to the hype, though in football it is striking how often they do (think of Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Rooney, even Joe Cole). Even if Adu is as good as people say he is, he may be eclipsed by the Nigerian sensation John Obi Mikel, currently playing in Norway, who was the subject of an unseemly tug-of-love between Chelsea and Manchester United last season.

Yet whether or not Mikel is the better player, given the parlous state of Nigerian football, Adu has a much better chance of shining on the world stage in 2010. Who knows, he may even be the spark that takes the US to the very top. An African team is still very unlikely to win the World Cup in the next 20 years, but the Americans just might. That's globalisation for you.

The World cup in numbers

1930: First World Cup 0: number of African teams involved then 51: African sides at the start of qualifiers for 2006 5: places reserved in finals for African teams 51: European teams at the start of qualifiers 13: places reserved for European teams . . . 23: players in each squad 0: Italian World Cup players based outside Italy . . . 1: Ivory Coast players not based in Europe . . . 6: Trinidad and Tobago World Cup players based in Scotland 16: World Cup players (all nationalities) based at Chelsea 40: percentage of US footballers who are women . . . 50: percentage of Women's World Cup competitions won by US £20m: annual earnings of Ronaldinho £19m: annual earnings of whole Australian team 9: games played by Australia to qualify . . . 26: games played by Trinidad and Tobago to qualify 4: Dutch managers at the World Cup . . . 4: Brazilian managers at the World Cup . . . 0: English managers at the World Cup . . . 6: teams from the southern hemisphere £676,000: average income of players in English Premiership £900: average income in Togo 100,000: England fans expected to travel to Germany . . . 4,000: tickets allocated to England fans for England v Trinidad and Tobago 314m: average number of TV viewers per match in 2002

Nkem Ifejika

This article first appeared in the 29 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, They can play, but they can never win