After the first round of games in the World Cup, an all too familiar script was playing out for African football fans. Five games played, three losses, two draws and only Ghana put the ball in the back of the net in a defeat by Portugal.
Another disappointing tournament was looming for the continent that Brazilian soccer great and three-time winner Pele once declared would “win the World Cup before the year 2000.”
The quote came off the back of Zaire’s humiliating World Cup group stage performance which included a 9-0 defeat by Yugoslavia in the 1974 tournament. Zaire was the first sub-Saharan nation to participate in the World Cup.
However, as Qatar 2022 draws to a close, the outlook looks very different.
Every single team from the continent won a game in its group for the first time in history, two teams made it out of the group stages – a joint record – and Morocco will become the first African team to play in a World Cup semi-final .
Against the backdrop of a tournament that seems increasingly defined by global politics and corporations, African countries have provided passion in Qatar 2022 and delivered plenty of pride for their nations.
The incredible skills and color of Senegal’s famous 12eme Gainde supporter group never failed to catch the attention of television broadcast directors, while the contingent of fans from Ghana and Cameroon brought a rhythmic soundscape similar to a stirring cinematic soundtrack when the two teams played.
But even the sub-Saharan countries have not been able to fully match the cacophony that Moroccan and Tunisian fans have brought to the World Cup – every clearance met with vociferous cheers, every opposition roar relentlessly booed and whistled.
None of this would have been possible if the World Cup had not been hosted by Qatar.
Doha has long been not only a hub of travel in Asia, but also in Africa. So much so that travel for most fans was easier to Doha than it was in 2010 when the tournament was on African soil.
A Google search shows that flying from Douala to Doha is cheaper than to Johannesburg. The cheapest route from Casablanca to Johannesburg is to fly via Doha.
But this is not only the most affordable World Cup for Africans, it is also the most accessible.
Qatar has made a visa easier for fans from Africa than any other World Cup host says Francis Nkwain, a Cameroonian football expert and media executive.
“Hoop me [Africans] Having to go through as a people to access in other parts of the world is very under reported,” Nkwane told CNN Sports.
“[Getting visas] Was a big challenge with Russia. This was a very big challenge for Brazil [in 2014].”
The accessibility cannot be underestimated in helping turn neutral matches into “home” matches, especially for the North African countries, who can count on support from Africa and the Arab world, something that Morocco’s head coach, Walid Regragui, was quick to point out Verify.
“Before it was only the Moroccans who supported us,” he said before the victory over Spain. “Now there are the Africans and Arabs.”
It is no coincidence that African nations have performed the best in the World Cup since the tournament was hosted in South Africa, responding to their supporters’ pride and passion.
For decades, Africa has produced some of the best players for the beautiful game, but this has not always been the case for the continent’s coaches.
A lack of infrastructure for the development of coaches, together with almost no opportunities for them at the highest level, has meant that historically African nations have more often than not been led by European managers.
In African footballing circles, the coaches are often referred to – less than flatteringly – as “plumbers.”
But the trend of African nations employing foreign managers is changing.
It is a development that Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet, who earlier this year coached a debutant Gambian team to a quarter-final finish in the Africa Cup of Nations, says should be celebrated.
“The biggest advantage now is that African teams have not chosen the expensive big coaches,” Saintfiet told CNN Sport.
“I think that was a huge mistake from the past where in 2010 … coaches like [Lars] Lagerbäck and Sven-Göran Eriksson … came to Africa without any experience in African football.
For the first time in history, all five African countries at the World Cup were coached by home nationals and all enjoyed some success to varying degrees.
The most successful is Regragui, who is at the forefront of a coaching revolution in Africa that has seen former players take on coaching roles.
Regragui was successful everywhere he worked, affectionately nicknamed “Rass l’Avocat” (Avocado Head) because of his bald head.
He led mid-table Moroccan club FUS Rabat to their only ever league title, won the Qatar Stars League with Al Duhail, before returning home to win a league and Champions League double with Wydad Casablanca – when Regragui became only the second Moroccan Coach to win the continental club title of Africa.
Perhaps more significantly, Regragui was also a member of the first cohort of coaches to receive their Confederation of African Football Pro Coaching license earlier this year.
Before Regragui’s cohort, any African manager looking to get continental coaching badges would have to travel to Europe or Asia to get the qualifications.
Before the tournament, Samuel Eto’o, president of the Cameroonian Football Association, made a rather extraordinary prediction that all five African countries will make it out of their groups and the final will be contested between Morocco and Cameroon.
He was widely ridiculed for this statement, but his tongue-in-cheek comments were more about changing the way his nation and continent see themselves. Regragui made similar comments after Morocco knocked out Spain.
“At some point in Africa, we have to be ambitious and why not win the World Cup?” He said.
Eto’o and Regragui speak to a much-needed shift in the mentality of African countries, that they should aspire to not only participate, but to compete in the top table.
But if countries are to improve on Africa’s record-breaking performance during Qatar 2022 at the next World Cup, where nine teams from Africa will compete, the positive mindset needs to be maintained.
“I really believe that Africa must believe in the fact that in the coming years it can have a world champion,” agrees Saintfiet.
“I hope that it happens in 2026 that more and more African teams come there not to be participants but to compete with the best to be world champions.”
While players like Yassine “Bono” Bounou, Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech and coach Regragui will get most of the credit for Morocco’s historic performance, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FMRF) should also be credited with the success of the Atlas Lions in Qatar 2022.
After decades of footballing mediocrity, the FMRF – with the support of King Mohammed VI – decided to overhaul the nation’s football structure.
In 2009, the FMRF opened its national football academy, the Mohamed VI Football Academy, which helped develop current international players such as Nayef Aguerd and Youssef En-Nesryi, as well as trying to uncover talent in the Moroccan diaspora by using scouts from across Europe to flag No eligible youth players in Europe.
The federation also began investing in women’s football, developing football in schools and clubs and creating a national league structure.
Funded by the FMRF, Morocco is currently the only nation in the world to have two tiers of women’s football that are both fully professional.
The crown jewel of Morocco’s football investment is the Mohamed VI Football Complex just outside Rabat.
The training complex contains four five-star hotels, eight FIFA standard pitches – one of which is indoors in a climate-controlled building – as well as a medical facility that includes a dentist.
That investment, along with a crop of stellar talent and Africa’s best coach, catapulted Morocco to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
In the next World Cup in 2026, Africa will have at least nine slots compared to the five it has in Qatar, something that could similarly have a transformational effect on African performances in the World Cup.
But if the nations that did not limit themselves such as Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Egypt – Algeria and Nigeria are missing in Qatar on the away goals rule – are to build on the success seen in Qatar, they will have to think about following the example Of the five nations that made the continent proud.
Notably developing in its soccer infrastructure to ensure that they are not left behind their European and South American counterparts, something that FIFA is helping by investing almost $600 million in a four-year cycle for the development of African men’s and women’s football.
There is still much work to be done, but after decades of African frustration and disappointment on the world stage, Qatar 2022 could be the turning point to transform the fortunes of the continent and for one of its teams to win the World Cup.