FIFA, the world governing body in football (soccer) has been under headlines last week. Despite being elected for yet another term as the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter resigned after only few days later due to mounting pressure over corruption cases. Blatter has made big steps helping to develop football in Africa, thus gaining almost unanimous support by African football federations.
Now that the Women’s World Cup held in Canada is kicking off, hopefully the sport prevails and off-field events stay in the background, despite the importance of ongoing investigations on FIFA. The number of teams participating the in the World Cup has been increased from 16 to 24, three of them from Africa (previously two), namely Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
Western African teams dominate the Women’s game in the continent. Nigeria is the powerhouse – they have participated all seven World Cup editions (other teams being Japan, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Brazil and the USA). Nigeria’s World Cup performance is not spectacular, out of 19 games played they have won only three matches and drew two. They have passed the group stage only once, in 1999 when they were beaten in the quarterfinal by Brazil 4-3 where Sissi scored the overtime goal. Interestingly, Brazil led 3-0 in the half time but Nigeria came back in the second half. Nigeria reached quarterfinal also at the 2004 Olympics, losing 2-1 to Germany despite their half-time lead. Nigeria missed the 2012 Olympics after being beaten by Cameroon in the qualifiers. Nigeria has dominated also the African Championships, winning 9 out of 11 tournaments.
Cameroon is a world cup debutant, but they already participated the Olympics in 2012, losing all three games. They have participated all African Championships tournaments, finishing second twice (2004 and 2014), and third also twice (2002 and 2012).
Ivory Coast is a newcomer in Women’s football, they participated the African Championships qualifiers no earlier than in 2002, and not qualifying until ten years later. Last year they made only their second appearance in the final tournament, where they secured the World Cup ticket by beating South Africa in the third place play-off.
Historically two other African teams, apart from Nigeria, have played in the World Cup, these are Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. Ghana has played at the World Cup three times (1999, 2003 and 2007), never reaching the play-offs, but have won one World Cup game beating Australia in 2003. Ghana have been a traditional rival to Nigeria, losing to them three times in the African Championships final, but have been fading in the recent years, not going through the group stage at continental level since 2006.
Equatorial Guinea played at the 2011 World Cup but lost all three matches. It is the only team save Nigeria to win the African Championships (in 2008 and 2012). The team did not qualify for the 2014 African Championships, being beaten by Ivory Coast. Since the 2014 tournament doubled as World Cup Qualifiers, Equatorial Guinea lost their chance to repeat World Cup appearance.
South Africa has not played in the World Cup, but participated the 2012 Olympics, managing a goalless draw against Japan who had won the World Cup the year before. This sole point was not enough to send South Africa to through the group stage.
African success in the commencing World Cup lies largely on Nigeria once again, but they are in a tough group with the USA, Sweden and Australia. Ivory Coast will have play against two strong teams, Germany and Norway. Thailand and Ivory Coast are expected to settle the two last places in their group. Cameroon plays in the Group C, with one Japan, the defending champions, being a clear favourite. Switzerland and Ecuador are less favoured teams, but Cameroon will still have to be lucky to beat either of them. There are six groups, with the two best teams in each group advancing to the playoffs, but so will two best third-placed teams, giving African teams a lifeline.
In the Women’s game professional opportunities are limited, but Cameroon and Nigeria have about half of their World Cup squad playing for European or American clubs, the rest play in local leagues. Ivory Coast relies on domestic squad having just four foreign-based players.
After decades of neglect, Women’s football started to gain respect only in the 90’s, the first World Cup was held in 1991. Views of football not being suitable for women are still being heard every now and then even in countries where the game is most developed. The status of Women’s football isn’t any better in African countries. Those playing the game will have to cope with minimal resources and many parents won’t let their daughters to play football at all. The situation is worst in certain Muslim countries with little or no women’s football activity (eg. Libya, Mauritania and Somalia). However, the status of Women’s football is better in some other Muslim countries, with Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt having performed relatively well in the continental scene.
Women’s game being not so developed, there are still opportunities for “new” nations to be successful, Japan and USA are good examples of this. But this success does not come easily, national federations really need to push forward the Women’s game. In the meantime we may hope that the three African teams perform respectably in this year’s World Cup to trigger the growth of game in these countries.
Will Africa ever host the Women’s World Cup? Despite being much smaller than the Men’s event, Women’s World Cup is not an easy cake to organise. The 2010 Men’s tournament held in South Africa was eventually a success, despite all concerns expressed before the tournament, paving the still narrow way for future events to be held in Africa. South Africa has by far the best stadium infrastructure in the continent and they have experience in hosting very big events (World Cups in Football, Rugby and Cricket), but soon people will be asking why only South Africa gets to host these events. Nigeria would be a preferable host based on their success in the continental game but the political and security situation in the country does not encourage hosting major sporting events there anytime soon.