Few African teams, especially sub-Saharan ones, ever progress beyond the last 16, and so it went this year. Before Algeria and Nigeria were knocked out, The Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon had already left the tournament. Surprise upstarts have come not from Africa, but from Latin America.
Costa Rica, a small country with only 5m inhabitants, played with admirable style and effort. Chile gave Brazil a huge extra-time fright. Colombia delighted everyone by being even more stylish than the Brazilians. Whether Costa Rica or Colombia progress beyond the quarter-finals remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the African teams were once again wracked by controversy. Seven Cameroonian players were accused of match-fixing. The Nigerian and Ghanaian teams threatened “industrial action” to ensure they received their bonuses. The tournament was treated to the spectacle of an aeroplane flown from Ghana with a shipment of banknotes to pay the players in cash, since no-one seemed to trust the Ghanaian football authorities to honour their undertakings in any other way. Then, when Ghana went out, the country’s president mooted an official inquiry into the team’s poor performance.
Throughout Africa, high hopes and huge expectations are counterweighted by meagre national resources, which are widely subject to corrupt pilfering. National football associations become sources of personal income, and people fight to become association presidents – not because they are experts in football development, but simply to have leverage over money.
And so organised football, like organised civil society with foreign links, becomes an alternative to a corrupt political life lived for personal enrichment. In this sense, at least, corruption is diversifying. But it does no good for the sport, especially at the prestigious international level.
The African teams of today are very different from those of even recent World Cups. Nearly every player is now a professional employed by a “big” team. They work at Chelsea, at AC Milan, Galatasary, and, even when playing with minor European teams, they are participating in aspirational set-ups. These players know what goes into a successful team.
But as soon as they get to national level, their coaches (Stephen Keshi aside) tend to be a step down; their national associations are inept, as well as corrupt. At a certain point, and this point was clearly avoided by both Nigeria and Algeria, teams think they are destined not to win, wonder why they should try, and think instead of maximising their compensation for the inconvenience the World Cup has caused them.
The president of Ghana can order as many enquiries as he likes, but football today is a big business and should be treated like one. That means African football associations need to have the efficiency and dynamism of international corporations. It might take some of the glamour and romance out of the game – but it also might do something to cut down on the embarrassments.
It’s not just football, of course. Earlier this year, Kenyan athletes threatened to stop competing if their international prize money was subject to taxation. The athletes were wrong to think they should be exempt from what should be a widened tax base designed to boost the country’s revenue; all countries simply have to do this. But even if in some cases they themselves were the nation’s emerging sporting oligarchs, they still refused to pay money into a system used by political figures to steal money for personal gain.
To that extent, the president of Ghana’s enquiry might come to a simple solution: football gets better as the nation gets better. Football wins if the nation’s government wants to win as a nation – not as a grouping of sectional, personal, and often very petty interests.