17 June 2018

Africa: Why Senegal Is Africa's Best Bet At Russia 2018

Photo: Twitter
Lord Sugar's now deleted tweet.

Five countries are representing Africa at the 2018 Fifa World Cup that got underway in Russia Thursday. Collectively, the continent has just three quarterfinal appearances (Cameroon at Italia '90; Senegal at South Korea & Japan 2002; Ghana at South Africa 2010) to show as gold standards at the flagship football tournament.

Needless to say, making the last four in Russia will be the primary aim of -- in no particular order -- Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia and Nigeria. The quintet will no doubt go to punishing lengths to prove their worth, but could well find the going ominous. While this remains a disappointing mystery to some, to others more it is excruciatingly obvious why odds being offered by bookmakers are below average. African players are still light years behind their South American and European opposite numbers.

This doesn't mean that a disaster of apocalyptic proportions awaits Africa's representatives in Russia. Scars from past World Cup battles might not have fully healed, but I expect Africa's representatives to give as good as they get. In fact, if you put a gun to your columnist's head and asked which of the five African countries will cover itself in glory, Senegal would be the quick pick.

The West Africans are pooled in Group H alongside Colombia, Japan and Poland. It isn't a group of life by any stretch of imagination. Poland aren't ranked eighth in the world by mistake. They will be one of a handful of teams to play a back three in Russia and have a proficient goalscorer in Robert Lewandowski. Elsewhere, James Rodríguez should thrive in the No.10 position Colombia will hand him as he seeks to tee up the likes of Radamel Falcao and Carlos Bacca from the hole. The indefatigability of Japan, whose players have a penchant for chasing lost causes, also makes them awkward opponents.

The group is in all truth even, which should give Senegal a fighting chance. The Lions of Teranga have an attribute that has taken African countries places in the showpiece tournament -- directness. While the midfield pivot of Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gana Gueye is -- to put it bluntly -- all brawn and no brain, many defences will be frightened by the prospect of Keita Baldé and Sadio Mané running the channels. It also counts for much that the central defensive pairing Kara Mbodji and Kalidou Koulibaly takes no prisoners.

Reaching heights similar to the ones they scaled in 2002 might prove tough, but Aliou Cissé will score a remarkable triumph if he secures a round of 16 berth. Cissé's history as Lions of Teranga captain was replete with absurdities and brilliances. His coaching trajectory has had a strikingly similar chaotic diversity of polar opposites. While the 42-year-old projected himself as a coach of searing tactical clarity at the 2017 Afcon finals, he didn't prove useful in soothing fears when Senegal found itself in the grip of angst at the business end. Your columnist nonetheless believes the former Senegal captain will deliver a brilliant advert for African coaches in Russia.

Elsewhere, Egypt and Nigeria should be mildly entertaining. The two could even have a measure of their opponents, but one gets an overwhelming sense that a tragedy launched by innocence and good intentions could well be authored.

Expect shining lightbulb moments from Hervé Renard, but the Iberian pair of Spain and Portugal have what it takes to slam the brakes on Morocco. Whereas there should be no fog of rage from Tunisians who expect their team to play second-fiddle to Belgium and England at the group stage. It promises to be a tough World Cup for Africa's representatives.

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