I remember at the Italia 90 World Cup when Cameroon got to the quarter finals and were unluckily beaten by England everyone saying it was only a matter of time before an African side won the World Cup. The breakthrough would come some time in the next 20 years. What no one predicted was that Cameroon’s 1990 performance would be remain an African high water mark, equalled only by Senegal who also went out in quarter-final extra time in 2002.
Things have gone backwards since then. With one round of the group matches left to go in the first ever African World Cup, it remains a distinct possibility that no African side will make it through to the last 16. South Africa, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are almost certainly out already. Algeria has some hope in the group of sleep but will probably lose to USA. That leaves Ghana who top their group currently ahead of Germany and Serbia. However their lacklustre performance against a poor ten-man Australian side suggests that they will probably lose to Germany and allow Serbia to grab the other place with a win or draw against Australia.
Just about the one African innovation of note in this World Cup is not the football but the vuvuzela. The infamous horn has split sporting fans across the world who either love it for its ability to get the fans involved or, more usually hate it for its incessant one-pitched drone which drowns out every other noise in the stadium. Problems with the vuvuzela were identified as early as the 2009 Confederation Cup which acted as a dress rehearsal for the hosts. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter went on the record saying he didn’t want to ban the vuvuzela saying “we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup.”
As with most things Blatter says, this was hypocritical bullshit. It had nothing to do with anti-colonialism and everything to do with office politics. There is certainly no long history of the vuvuzela’s use in Africa or elsewhere. Plastic horns first emerged in Mexico in the 1970s and were seen at the Argentina 1978 World Cup. They didn’t become popular in South Africa until 20 years later. With its dangerously high sound level and closeness to the frequency of human speech, the horns are detestable and Blatter probably hates them as much as anyone who is not playing them. What the FIFA President was really saying is that he was not prepared to risk African votes deserting him during the 2011 presidential election.
But while Blatter is busy buying votes, the tournament he runs is starting to gather pace after a slow start. The first week saw a succession of negative games and 1-0 scorelines. Desperately poor and uneven refereeing didn’t help. The code’s complete refusal to use technology to help the refs leaves it looking a laughing stock compared to the range of facilities available to rugby, cricket and tennis umpires.
This is especially ludicrous now that the referees and assistants are wired up to talk to each other. It would not take long to talk to a fourth or fifth official in the stands with access to replays, goal-line incidents and offside decisions. The oft-quoted excuse that it would “interrupt the flow of the game” beggars belief especially when considering how many interruptions currently exist when players fall over under the slightest provocation.
But back to the football itself. I’ve mentioned the problems with Africa, but Europe does not seem in much better health. A European team has never won the competition outside its home continent and this statistic is likely to continue in South Africa. Germany looked strong against Australia only to fold against Serbia. Meanwhile Italy, France and England all lack a cutting edge. Favourites Spain inexplicably lost to Switzerland and may find it impossible to recover from the shock of that loss. The Dutch look the best of the Europeans so far but don’t really have the aura of trophy winners.
The same cannot be said of Brazil and Argentina. Both sides have aura in abundance and won their games easily. With the right amount of fortune they should end up playing each other in the first all-South American final since 1950 (or 1930 if you are being picky and say there was no actual final in 1950) and the first ever final between these two old foes. It would be hilarious to watch Diego Maradona pick up another world cup trophy, despite all his obvious flaws and apparent madness. I suspect Brazil have slightly too much guile to make that happen, but it is Argentina and its current on-field genius Lionel Messi that have my heart as we head into the next few fascinating weeks.