At the time of writing in January 2024, the 2023 (yes, 2023!) Africa Cup of Nations is taking place in Ivory Coast. It began on the 13th of January 2024 and the final will take place on the 11th of February. One thing we know for sure, even at this early stage of the tournament is that an African nation will win! This is the continent’s equivalent of the Euros and so that is a given, but our focus in this feature is how African nations have fared on the wider, grander stage of the World Cup.
The tournament has been held in Africa once so far, in 2010 when South Africa did the honours. In a rather controversial move, the 2030 FIFA World Cup will be the first to be held on two different continents, with Iberian cousins Portugal and Spain sharing hosting duties with Morocco. The North African nation will hope to do better than their southern counterparts, who made unwanted history by becoming the first World Cup host to exit the tournament at the first hurdle.
But whilst Bafana Bafana were disappointing, there have been occasions when African nations have upset the odds and done better than expected on the global stage. But what is the best performance by any nation from the continent at the World Cup?
Quarter Final Was Glass Ceiling in World Cup
In 1977 the legendary Pele stated his belief that an African nation would lift the World Cup before 2000. Well, the former Santos legend was one hell of a player, but he was not so great at predictions of the future. 2000 has been and gone, and whilst it might seem like just a few years ago to some, there have been six World Cups this millennium and still the wait for an African victory goes on.
In fact, until the most recent World Cup, in Qatar in 2022, no nation from the continent had reached the last four, although three separate countries had made it as far as the quarter finals. The three teams who jointly held the record for the best showing at the World Cup were Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal.
Cameroon made history back in 1990 by becoming the first African nation to progress that far into the tournament. In the end, they were a little unfortunate to lose to England, but they created so many memories for their fans and were warmly received by neutrals. That could have been a breakthrough moment and perhaps Pele felt his prediction could yet have come true.
However, 1994 and 1998 passed and none of the sides to play at those tournaments could even match Cameroon. Then in 2002, Senegal were part of a shocking Group A that saw them progress behind Denmark, with France and Uruguay eliminated. They then got past Sweden before narrowly losing 1-0 in extra time to Turkey, who would go on to finish third.
In 2006 Ghana made the last 16 but four years later they too felt their heads touching the quarter-final glass ceiling but were unable to crash through. In truth, they should have made the semis but with the score level at 1-1 in extra time, they were denied by a goaline handball by that bastion of fair play and sporting virtue, Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan rogue was sent off, Ghana missed the penalty, the South Americans won the shootout that followed and that was that.
Morocco Make History in 2022
The performances of African nations have improved over the years and whilst no country from the continent made the last eight in 2014 or 2018, in 2014, for the first time, they had two nations make the Round of 16. This happened again in 2022 and finally one of that duo managed to make it not just to the last eight, but to the semi finals.
Senegal and Morocco progressed through the group stage but whilst the West Africans were dispatched 3-0 by England in the Round of 16, the Atlas Lions edged out Spain on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Not done beating local rivals, they then beat Portugal 1-0 in the quarters to make history. Morocco were defensively outstanding in that game and their spirit and willingness to put bodies on the line was hugely impressive.
Earlier on they had caused a shock by topping Group F ahead of Croatia, finalists in 2018, and Belgium (and Canada, who took the wooden spoon). They conceded just a single goal in their three group matches. That meant that after shutouts against both Spain and Portugal, they had let in just a single goal in five games.
They met defending champions France in the semis and whilst beating another of their former colonisers would have brought huge joy, it wasn’t to be. The World Cup holders proved too strong in the end and won 2-0.
That left Morocco with one more game to play, the oft-unwanted third-place play-off clash. Here they were reunited with group rivals Croatia, with whom they drew 0-0 in their opening fixture of the World Cup. This time around though Croatia edged them out, winning 2-1 in a game that was 1-1 after just nine minutes.
That was a disappointing end for the Moroccans but they will have been overjoyed to become the first African nation ever to make a World Cup semi. They had a little luck at times – but all teams need that in a month-long tournament. Moreover, they were helped by the hot weather conditions and as an Arab nation they also received great support from the stands. As well as becoming the first African nation to make the last four, they were also the first Arab one to do so and they were backed by Qataris and other local fans.
The next step, of course, is for Morocco, or one of the other strong African nations, to go one, and hopefully two better. Making the first final would be a huge accomplishment but of course winning the World Cup must be the aim for Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria, Cameroon and all the rest. Pele’s prediction of a pre-2000 win has proved wrong, but we think an African nation will win by 2050… see you in 26 years!