Think of African football and some would cast their minds back to the days of Cameroon at Italia 90. Roger Milla swaying his hips onto a corner flag as the Indomitable Lions shocked the footballing world, won countless admirers with their enthusiastic spirit and collected many a yellow card (and red) with their tough tackling. Those of an older generation would remember the Algeria team of the 1980s, who gave the West Germans a rude awakening in Gijón during the 1982 World Cup.

Younger minds will recollect the exploits of Senegal at the 2002 World Cup. Back then, their qualification was a surprise to many outside Africa, but shocking then-World Cup holders France in the opening game made everyone stand up and take notice. Their run to the quarter-finals won respect from those who appreciated the skill, guile but also determination of the West Africans, who were well marshalled and coached by the late Bruno Metsu.

The success of Senegal has started a trend where countries outside the traditional powerhouses of African football have upset the established order. Over the last 15 years, these upstarts such as Angola, Togo, Cape Verde, Gabon and Burkina Faso have thumbed their noses at the established elite. But how has the new wave managed to close the gap?

 

Investing in Africa

 

FIFA in the last two decades have taken steps to improve the infrastructure of developing countries across the world, especially in Africa. From 1999 to 2013 they have invested $476 million into the continent with most of the funds going to three particular programs. The first is the Financial Assistance Programme, which provides money to the member nations of FIFA. Africa is a notable beneficiary, receiving $228 million during the 14-year period. The objective of the programme is to help with infrastructure, planning and administration but also developing youth football in Africa.

The second program is a project called Goal. In FIFA’s words, it’s the initiative sought to “provide funding for essential football projects.” In reality, that means investing in academies, accommodation but also technical centres to improve development from the ground up.

The third scheme, called Win in Africa with Africa, was announced in June 2006 and coincided with South Africa hosting the World Cup four years later. With a budget of $70 million its’ achievements included helping provide 52 artificial pitches – one for each member of Africa’s governing body CAF apart from South Africa – and supported the organisation of the under-17 and under-20 World Cups being held in Nigeria and Egypt respectively in 2009.

Under these programs, if utilised correctly by the football associations and federations of Africa’s nations (and there have been cases when it hasn’t), it can help of Africa’s smaller footballing nations in the long term. Whether its the African powerhouses of Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast or nations of smaller traditions like Niger, Gabon or Botswana, if given a chance it can produce talent. 

However, there are those who say FIFA’s funding of Africa has political undertones, especially when it comes to Sepp Blatter. Some would say Blatter’s efforts to invest in the continent is an inducement to get CAF’s vote when it came to his re-election, but others would argue Blatter has been the only FIFA president who has made a concentrated effort to invest in African football. On repeated occasions he’s suggested increasing the five spots Africa currently have at the World Cup.

 

Playing in Europe

 

The growing strength of Africa’s emergent nations is the ever increasing exposure of its players to European club football. Playing at such a consistently high level, the chance to play against but also with some of the best players in world football can improve a player immeasurably. In turn, that can have a positive knock-on effect for their national team. Players such as Burkina Faso’s Jonathan Pitroipa (formerly of Rennes and Hamburg), Gabon’s Mario Lemina (currently at Juventus) and Cape Verde’s Ryan Mendes of Lille have benefited from playing in Europe’s top leagues.

Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a prime example. Though the forward started his career at AC Milan he never played a senior game for them and was loaned to French clubs such as Dijon, Monaco and finally Saint-Étienne, where he signed permanently in December 2011. His success for the club, which led to his big move to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2013, has no doubt benefited Gabon immensely.

Playing at such a high level has allowed 27-year-old old to reach new realms of excellence. Importantly, he has shown his form for his country, when as joint top scorer – with six other players – helped Gabon to the quarter-finals in the 2012 African Cup of Nations that they co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea. As captain of his country, can Aubameyang be the poster child of next year’s African Cup of Nations that Gabon will host. There’s a reason why he was the 2015 African Footballer of the Year.

 

The impotence of Africa’s heavyweights

 

Unheralded countries have burst onto Africa’s football scene in the last 15 years. Who would have expected Angola and Togo to qualify for the 2006 World Cup ahead of Nigeria and Senegal? Or Burkina Faso overcoming a star-studded Ghana to reach the final of the 2013 African Cup of Nations?

In saying that, it should be noted that Africa’s best teams haven’t made it easy for themselves over the years. In fact, they’ve shot themselves in the foot on numerous occasions. Cameroon’s national team has been wracked with infighting in their squad. One example was back in 2009, when coach Paul Le Guen stripped Rigobert Song of the captaincy, giving it to Samuel Eto’o. Factions developed within the squad, as players supported either Song or Eto’o. Needless to say, the Indomitable Lions failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Ghana in the 2014 World Cup put African football in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Their own government had to send $3 million on a chartered flight to Brazil to pay their players’ World Cup appearance fees. Such a move was unprecedented, but the Black Stars had to avoid growing unrest in their training camp and quell growing press coverage. Unsurprisingly, they crashed out of the group stages, failing to win a game.

Those problems off the pitch impacted their performances on the pitch, but some of Africa’s other big teams, like Nigeria and Tunisia, have suffered off-the-pitch issues too. As a result, a vacuum has opened for unfancied countries – emboldened by funding and improved infrastructure – to step in as the new kids on the block and taste success. The make up of next year’s African Cup of Nations shows how this vacuum has been exploited.

 

Opportunities in a vacuum

 

Uganda qualified for next year’s competition for the first time since 1978. The scenes in Kampala when the Cranes sealed qualification after beating the Comoros Islands were amazing. Their goal of reaching the event has been planned since Milutin Sredojević was appointed coach in 2013. It’s safe to say qualifying for the African Cup of Nations is the crowning moment in the Serbian’s 15-year coaching career. His words after his side sealed their passage to Gabon were fitting: “The Uganda Cranes have become a uniting factor that has helped Uganda come together for – I want to call it – a team effort, on the field and off the field. Everyone has pushed in the right direction. We have succeeded to qualify and I feel extremely proud.”

Uganda are placed in a competitive group with Mali, Ghana and Egypt – but Sredojević’s players will be undaunted at what awaits them in Gabon next year. They possess goalscoring threats in captain Geoffrey Massa but also 18-year-old Farouk Miya of Standard Liège – a potential star of the future.

Though Uganda’s qualification is impressive, the exploits of Guinea-Bissau in reaching their first ever African Cup of Nations is nothing short of miraculous. A country of less than two million people, the ex-Portuguese colony only entered international competition in 1998. Despite internal problems (their football federation regularly failed to pay the squad their appearance fees for qualifying matches), the Djurtus have confounded expectations to qualify.

Their squad consists mainly of players from Portugal’s lower leagues but also Guinea-Bissau’s semi professional domestic league. Even with these setbacks, they prevailed from a qualifying group of Zambia, Kenya and Congo. Defeating the Zambians 3-2 at home epitomised the togetherness of the squad to overcome whatever troubles faced them. They may be perennial underdogs but opening the competition on 14 January against the hosts is just rewards for their efforts.

For every unfancied team that has qualified for the African Cup of Nations next year, it means an established African power has missed out. Nigeria failed to qualify for the second time in a row while Zambia and South Africa have taken backward steps. 

There’s no reason why some of these emerging nations can’t qualify for a World Cup – if not in 2018 then certainly for Qatar 2022. Some might lament the absence of the big African teams, with those arguing that fans don’t want some of the continent’s best players missing out, but the more African countries that get a taste of playing in elite tournaments the better, and it’s a cause for celebration and something positive for the continent.

This change has occurred courtesy of sustained investment by FIFA within Africa which is implemented effectively, and by more players moving to Europe’s top leagues. Hopefully Africa’s new upstarts can make the footballing world take notice once again, just like Bruno Metsu’s Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990 did all those years ago.

By Yousef Teclab. Follow @yousef738