“An African nation will win the World Cup before the year 2000″, declared Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé, in 1977. An ambitious prediction to make, given the disastrous performance which Zaire had at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. The Central African side suffered a humiliating 9-0 defeat to the former Yugoslavia. O Rei’s prophesy has yet to occur, more than two decades after he said it would and things weren’t looking much better ahead of this edition in Qatar, although some pundits place Senegal among the favourites. Or at least they did… the absence of their best player, Sadio Mané, represents a major setback for the Lions.
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In Korea and Japan 2002, Senegal made it to the quarter finals, matching the efforts of Roger Milla’s Cameroon at Italy 1990. That however, the quarter final stage, remains the furthest any African team has reached at a World Cup. Ghana also managed to make the Last 8 in South Africa 2010 – when Pelé extended his prediction. It could even be argued that the expectation for teams from the Africa continent in the World Cup has deteriorated in recent times. Russia 2018, in fact, was the first tournament since 1982 in which no nation from the CAF region managed to even make it as far as the Round of 16.
At the World Cups in Spain in 1982 and Mexico in 1986, one in four of the participating African teams had reached the Round of 16 at least. The percentage rose to 33 percent, one in three, between Italy 90, USA 94, and France 98. With the turn of the new millennium, after Pelé’s bold prognosis expired, that percentage has dropped to 25 percent.
Teams from Africa have won, on average, three group matches in every tournament since 1998. That win rate, which was 20 per cent, dropped to 16.6 in South Africa 2010, with six representatives, including the host team.
In addition to Senegal’s notable absence of Sadio Mané, second behind Karim Benzema in the race for the 2022 Ballon d’Or, his old Liverpool team mate Mohamed Salah, who has always challenged him for the African Ballon d’Or, won’t be at the tournament. Salah’s Egypt failed to qualify for this edition of the World Cup and without Salah or Sadio, Pelé’s already obsolete omen seems now even wide of the mark.