Let’s hear it loud and proud for Africa’s hopefuls

Sport

Let’s hear it loud and proud for Africa’s hopefuls

A team-by-team rundown of how their stars align

Journalist

Africa has a proud and colourful record of performances that have captured global imagination at the World Cup.
As the 2018 Fifa World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday, Times Select breaks down the chances of the five African teams on the stage of the Theatre of Dreams.
Egypt (World ranking 45, Africa 5)
Group A with Russia, Saudi Arabia and UruguayCoach: Argentine maestro Hector Cuper, the former Mallorca, Inter Milan and Real Betis manager, has brought bite back to the Egyptian national team after their failures to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in 2012, 2013 and 2015. His blending of veterans with new blood has resulted in a second-ever World Cup qualification, the first coming in Italia 90.
Qualification: Egypt finished Group E four points clear of Uganda. The Pharaohs beat Congo 2-1 home and away, won 2-0 at home and drew 1-1 way against Ghana, and lost 1-0 away against Uganda, beating them 1-0 away.
Players to watch: Mohamed Salah arrived as record-fee signing for Liverpool from Roma at £36.9-million in June, then broke records scoring 44 goals in all competitions, the most by an African in a Premier League season. He was injured by Sergio Ramos’s cynical foul as Liverpool lost in last month’s Uefa Champions League final against Real Madrid. Ahmed Fathy (33) and goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary (45) are veterans of Egypt’s three successive Afcon victories from 2006 to 2010. Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny adds to the class of the lineup.
Prognosis: The spectacular scenes of celebration in front of 75,000 fans at Alexandria’s Borg El Arab Stadium in October as Salah scored a 94th-minute penalty to beat Congo 2-1 and send the Pharaohs to their second World Cup seemed to indicate a reignition of Egyptian football. That, and the explosion onto the global stage of Salah.
It has been a sore point for Egypt – who went out in the first round in 1990 with draws against Netherlands and Ireland, and a defeat against England – that 1990 remains their only World Cup appearance when they have dominated in Africa at club and national level.
With a mixture of European and home-based talent, and youth and experience, and a seasoned coach, they will look to make a rare qualification count. So much depends on Salah's still touch-and-go recovery ahead of their first match against Uruguay on Friday. If they can win against a more than competent Luis Suarez-led Uruguay, Egypt can also earn results from Saudi Arabia and unconvincing hosts Russia.
Prediction: Second round
Morocco (World ranking 41, Africa 4)
Group B with Portugal, Spain and IranCoach: Herve Renard has proved everything at African national level with Afcon victories with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015. Now he has steered Morocco to the World Cup, and the 49-year-old Frenchman, the most respected coach in Africa, gets a chance to test himself on football's biggest stage.
Qualification: Morocco finished four points clear of Ivory Coast in Group C. The Atlas Lions drew 0-0 against Gabon away and won 3-0 at home, drew 0-0 at home against Ivory Coast and won 2-0 away, and won 6-0 at home against Mali and drew 0-0 away.
Players to watch: With close to 250 appearances for Udinese, Roma, Bayern Munich and current club Juventus in the Bundesliga and Serie A, centreback Mehdi Benatia, at 31, is one of Africa’s most accomplished and experienced defenders. The midfield duo of ex-Aston Villa anchor Karim El Ahmadi and playmaker Mbark Boussoufa, twice a top scorer in Belgium, are hugely experienced. RS Berkane’s 24-year-old forward Ayoub El Kaabi has 10 goals in eight caps.
Prognosis: Morocco have pedigree as the first African team in the modern era to participate in a World Cup finals in 1970, after Egypt’s lone early appearance in 1930. In four qualifications the Atlas Lions reached the second round in 1986.
After two decades of underachievement from their last appearance in 1998, an experienced Morocco, under a hungry coach in Renard, are keen to impress in Russia. Almost everything depends on a win against Carlos Queiroz's Iran on Friday. Then there is still a big ask trying for results against Portugal then Spain.
Prediction: Second round
Nigeria (World ranking 48, Africa 7)
Group D with Argentina, Iceland and CroatiaCoach: Gernot Rohr coached Bordeaux to a Uefa Cup final in the early 1990s, coached Creteil and Nice in France, then migrated to various jobs in Africa before the Nigeria post. The 64-year-old German oversaw an impressive Russia 2018 qualification campaign with a young, yet again rebuilt Super Eagles through Caf’s group of death.
Qualification: Nigeria finished five points clear of Zambia in Group B. The Super Eagles beat Zambia 2-1 away and 1-0 at home, won 3-1 at home and lost 3-0 away against Algeria, and won 4-0 at home and drew 1-1 away against Cameroon.
Players to watch: John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi are the stars the current Super Eagles. They scored eight of Nigeria’s 11 goals in the qualifiers. Mikel, at 31, remains their most influential player at playmaker despite winding down his career in China. Moses made 25 appearances and scored three goals as a wing-back a Chelsea finished sixth in the EPL in the past season, though plays more as a deep striker for Nigeria. Iwobi, at 22, played 26 times in his first senior season at Arsenal, though his form was mixed.
Prognosis: Rohr’s Nigeria are not the imposing Super Eagles of 1994, but they have a proud World Cup record, even when they are destabilised by strikes over salaries and bonuses.
With this their sixth appearance, they are second only to Cameroon on seven. With a record of reaching the second round three times in their five finals, even if Nigeria have a tough group in Russia, their resilience suggests they could do so again this year. Their opener against Croatia on Saturday will be crucial, then Nigeria must beat Iceland before they meet Argentina.
Prediction: Second round
Tunisia (World ranking 21, Africa 1)
Group G with Belgium, England and PanamaCoach: Nabil Maaloul replaced Henry Kasperczak in April 2017, after the Pole was fired following Tunisia’s quarterfinal exit at the Afcon in Gabon. Previously the coach of Kuwait and capped 74 times as a player for Tunisia, he is a fan favourite and has strengthened the Eagles of Carthage’s top 30 world ranking to an impressive, though perhaps deceptive, 21st in the world.
Qualification: Tunisia topped Group A by a point from Democratic Republic of Congo. They beat Guinea 2-0 at home and 4-1 away, won 1-0 away against Libya and drew 0-0 at home, and beat DRC 2-1 at home and drew 2-2 away.
Players to watch: Ellyes Skhiri is a team-mate of Bafana Bafana forward Keagan Dolly at Montpellier, where the 23-year-old has had an impressive season in central midfield and is expected to move on to a bigger club. Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia's 27-year-old stalwart forward on loan from Sunderland to Rennes, played in the UK’s Premier League.
Prognosis: Tunisia have lost two and drawn one of their three group matches at each of their previous World Cup appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2006. They should be able to go one better and get that elusive first victory against tournament whipping boys Panama.
The Tunisians have been tipped as the least likely of the five African teams to get past the group stage. But do not rule out a gritty draw against a young, inexperienced and perhaps again overrated England – considered bitter foes by the North Africans after the war on the streets of Marseille that surrounded a 2-0 defeat to the Eagles at France 1998.
Then, with a defeat expected against Belgium (who should win the group), second place might go down to goal difference with England. With a lack of quality outside of Skhiri and Khazri, though, progression any further seems a distant prospect.
Prediction: Group stage
Senegal (World ranking 27, Africa 2)
Group H with Poland, Colombia and JapanCoach: Aliou Cisse formed a deadly midfield trio with Papa Bouba Diop and Salif Diao when Senegal shocked holders France 1-0 in the opening game of Korea/Japan 2002, before a stirring run to the quarterfinals. That generation put Senegal on the global map, though they struggled to motivate successive big-name European stars. Cisse, 42, appears to have done that with the Lions of Teranga’s second World Cup qualification.
Qualification: Senegal finished five points clear of Burkina Faso in Group D. They beat Cape Verde 2-0 home and away, drew 0-0 at home and 2-2 away against Burkina Faso, and beat South Africa 2-0 away and 2-1 at home.
Players to watch: Sadio Mane has scored 23 goals in 57 Premier League appearances in two seasons for Liverpool. In Jurgen Klopp’s team’s run to last month’s Uefa Champions League final defeat against Real Madrid Mane, Salah and Brazilian Roberto Firmino established themselves as the most-feared attacking trio in Europe. 
Senegal, though, are not a one-star team. Their lineup includes Kalidou Koulibaly, influential in midfield in Napoli’s second-placed finish in Serie A, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate.
Prognosis: Senegal go to the World Cup as the African team with the most hope of reaching the quarterfinals. They have also been handed the group that gives the most chance of progressing to the second round.
They start on Tuesday against potential Group H winners Poland, whose toughness is reflected by a world ranking of eighth. Senegal will feel they will need to win against Japan in their next match, before what might be one of the matchups of the group stage against one of the 2014 World Cup’s most exciting lineups, Colombia.
Prediction: Quarter finals

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