IN ONE of the most superb opening lines in all of literature, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy remarks, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
He may well have been remarking upon Africa’s showing at the World Cup almost 150 years later: Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal all have cause for regret after their tragic group stage exits, but while the misery is the same, the particulars are not.
For Egypt, drawn in the weakest group and alongside the weakest seed, and making a first World Cup appearance in 28 years, this tournament represented a great opportunity to make a proper splash.
For so long Africa’s dominant side, there has lingered about the Pharaohs the sense of a big fish in a (figuratively) small pond. It is a notion that a sorry campaign has done plenty to dispel: Egypt was one of only two teams to finish the Group Stage without registering a single point.
The injury to Mohamed Salah was no doubt the headline, but the utter incompetence of the rest of the side in his absence – and subsequent half-presence – poses even more damming questions about the management of the team, as well as Egypt’s football development in general.
While the now-departed Hector Cuper’s side embraced ignominy, there was rather more to be proud of, even in elimination, for the rest of the contingent.
Senegal and Nigeria went into their final group matches with qualification firmly within their grasps, both requiring draws to progress.
Neither managed it, however; their game management, both in failing to score while on top and in seeing out a match from a position of advantage, failing at the most crucial moments.
However, both could rightly rue their sloppiness in previous encounters – Nigeria seemed unaware that the World Cup had actually kicked off in their opening loss to Croatia, while Senegal should not have twice blown a lead against Japan.
Morocco and Tunisia lost twice on the bounce, but salvaged some pride on the final day.
Tunisia were somewhat unfortunate with the order of the fixtures. Had they played Panama first, they perhaps might have gone forward with greater confidence.
Instead, they seemed in a strait betwixt two early on, and got punished particularly ruthlessly by Belgium and England.
In amidst their individual agonies, there are however some common threads that tie up this casserole of disappointment quite neatly.
With nothing to occupy them besides African football, in the form of qualifiers and the Africa Cup of Nations, it is no surprise that they displayed such startling naivety at times.
This manifested in a number of ways: a peculiar vulnerability to set-plays (even Senegal, one of the biggest sides at the tournament, were undone by a corner kick); a total lack of nous and composure in seeing out games – Aziz Bouhaddouz vs. Iran, Nigeria dropping as deep as its own six-yard line against Argentina, Tunisia vs. England; as well as temperament – see Senegal getting knocked out on Fair Play points; one could go on and on.
This lack of experience also robbed Africa of the chance to build progressively.
What is particularly disappointing is that, while one could argue that experience was lacking, there was not exactly a sense of abandon about the five.
Instead, the stodgy, unimaginative fare served up by, in particular, Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, made for some rather dull fare with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Morocco were perhaps the exception, playing an almost Spanish passing game, in keeping with their geographical proximity to the Iberian Peninsula. Senegal were unabashedly themselves, rigidly organised and breaking at pace through their wingers, but crucially lacked a real flourish at the end of their plays, such as their 2002 vintage possessed. – MSN
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