African soccer still trying to fulfil promise at World Cup

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By Associated Press

CAPE TOWN: Henri Mouyebe slaps green, red and yellow paint on his bald head and big, bare belly before every Cameroon soccer game. He’s been transforming his hefty frame into a living, moving Cameroon flag for 40 years in support of his team.

He will take his paint, and a huge dollop of hope, to this year’s World Cup in Qatar.

“We are going there as conquerors, as winners, to play seven matches, play until the end of the tournament,” Mouyebe said, forecasting Cameroon will go all the way to the World Cup final.

Eternal optimism.

Sadly for Mouyebe, it’s most likely misguided given Cameroon’s recent World Cup record. The Indomitable Lions have won only one game at the last five World Cups they’ve played in and nothing suggests they’ll be walking out at Lusail Stadium on Dec. 18 to compete for soccer’s biggest prize.

In an African context, Cameroon’s struggles are significant because it was the country, the team, that did shake the world of soccer 32 years ago by beating defending champion Argentina — a team that had Diego Maradona — on the way to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Nearly the semifinals, but for an extra-time loss to England.

Africa had arrived, everyone said. Pele declared an African triumph at the World Cup was imminent. Seven World Cups and more than 30 years later, no African team has gone any further than Cameroon did by reaching the quarterfinals. Cameroon hasn’t been anywhere near that again.

A man painted in the colours of the Cameroon flag, chants, prior to the African Cup of Nations Group D soccer match between Cameroon and Ivory Coast

“You have to be realistic,” former Tunisia coach Youssef Zouaoui said of Africa’s hopes of having a historic World Cup in Qatar with a semifinalist, or even better, this time. “The ambition is legitimate, but the reality on the ground is something else.”

That reality for World Cup-bound Tunisia, Zouaoui said, is the country’s best players, driven by the economics of world soccer, play for European clubs, which often trumps their commitments to their country. The same economics have slowly drained Tunisia’s domestic soccer so that it is now in dire straits financially.

How do you then build better stadiums, better leagues, better national teams to match the demands of a continent of 1.3 billion, where soccer runs deeper than any other sport?

Those basic drawbacks can be applied to all five African teams going to this year’s World Cup — Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Morocco and Tunisia — even if they are unique teams that aren’t defined just by being African. It’s not just an African problem, nor is it new. Rich European clubs also draw players and focus from South America, Asia and elsewhere, and have done for years.

But in Africa, the Confederation of African Football, the body that runs soccer on the continent, has been seen as the biggest failure of all.

CAF hit a new low since the last World Cup when FIFA, the sport’s main governing body, sent its secretary general to run the African organization for six months in 2019, an unprecedented move to take over an independent continental confederation. It was necessary, FIFA said, because of the organizational and financial mess that CAF was in.

FIFA didn’t stop there. Last year, FIFA president Gianni Infantino brokered a deal to ensure his favored candidate, South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe, was elected unopposed as the new president of CAF. Motsepe has been flanked by Infantino at almost every official function since.

FIFA’s outsized influence in CAF over the last three years has prompted a new wave of criticism of a body that has been troubled for a lot longer, and surely does need saving. But Infantino’s interest, the critics say, is more likely Africa’s 54 votes, soccer’s second-largest continental voting bloc behind Europe, ahead of the FIFA presidential election next year in Rwanda.

“Having 54 countries and one particular confederation at his beck and call just increases his leverage,” African soccer analyst Francis Gaitho said, also saving some blame for African soccer leaders who he believes are complicit.

African soccer’s decision-making has now been “outsourced to Europe,” Gaitho said, just like its best talent.

Amid the politics, CAF is nearly bankrupt, reported a $44.6 million net loss last year and somehow bungled a $1 billion, 10-year sponsorship deal in the early days of FIFA’s influence in 2019 that would have represented the biggest single investment in African soccer and might have gone some way to solving the myriad of problems.

“There’s always a correlation between bad governance and the teams and results,” Gaitho warned. “I will tell people to manage their expectations and not expect too much from Africa.”

Hope remains, mostly this time with Senegal, spearheaded by Sadio Mané and a team that has managed in recent years to rise above Africa’s issues.

Elsewhere, they’re calling for help. Ghana held two separate days of national prayer, one for Christians and one for Muslims, last month for its team, which was also a much-celebrated quarterfinalist 12 years ago but will now be the lowest-ranked team at this year’s World Cup.

At 67, Mouyebe is old enough to remember vividly his country’s magical run in 1990. Maybe it’s what has given him the energy to still paint his entire body, head to toe, for the last 20 years without seeing Cameroon win once at the World Cup.

“The wish of all Africans is that performances like that of 1990 become normal,” said Jules Onana, who played on that Cameroon team at the 1990 World Cup. “Rather than being a feat without a future.”