On Sunday, February 11, 2024, Ivory Coast made history by winning their third Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title, beating Nigeria 2-1 in a thrilling final in Abidjan. The hosts came from behind to score two goals in the second half, thanks to Franck Kessie and Sebastien Haller, who became the heroes of the nation. The victory sparked scenes of joy and celebration across the country, as millions of fans cheered for their team and their country.
The AFCON 2024 was a remarkable tournament for Ivory Coast, who had almost been eliminated in the group stage and had fired their coach Jean-Louis Gasset. They showed resilience and determination to overcome their difficulties and reach the final, where they faced a formidable opponent in Nigeria, who had conceded only one goal in the entire tournament before the final. Ivory Coast's win was not only a testament to their talent and spirit, but also a symbol of the progress and potential of African football.
Africa has long been a source of talented and passionate football players, who have dazzled the world with their skills and flair. From the likes of Roger Milla, Abedi Pele, George Weah, Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Mohamed Salah, to Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, and many more, African players have made their mark in the global game, winning prestigious awards and trophies with their clubs and countries. However, despite their individual brilliance, African teams have struggled to make an impact at the highest level of international football: the FIFA World Cup.
Since the first participation of an African team in the World Cup in 1934, when Egypt represented the continent, no African team has ever reached the semi-finals, let alone the final, of the tournament. The best performance by an African team was achieved by Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010, who all reached the quarter-finals, but were eliminated by narrow margins. Many football lovers have hoped and predicted that an African team would eventually win the World Cup, especially after the great Brazilian player Pele said in the 1970s that an African country would win before the year 2000. However, that prophecy has not yet come true, and some have even questioned if it ever will.
But is it realistic to keep hoping for an African World Cup win? Are African teams doing what they need to compete with the world's best, making it just a matter of time? Or is an African win possible if countries do something different? Or is an African win simply impossible, the stuff of false hope?
A recent research paper by Matthew Andrews, a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, tried to answer these questions by comparing the competitive records of the top African contenders (Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia) and the recent World Cup finalists and semi-finalists (Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Spain) in the 2010s. The paper looked at two dimensions of each country's competitive record: how they compete as a participant (how much they play, who they play against and in which tournaments) and how they compete as a rival (how often they win, especially against elite teams and in high profile tournaments).
The paper found a significant competitive gap between African countries and the world's best, which seems to have grown over recent generations. This gap is not encouraging for those hoping for an African World Cup win. The paper argued that African countries need to change their approach to football development, by investing more in infrastructure, coaching, youth programs, domestic leagues, and regional competitions, as well as improving their governance, management, and administration of the sport. The paper also suggested that African countries should collaborate more with each other and with FIFA, the world governing body of football, to create more opportunities and incentives for African football to grow and flourish.
Some of these suggestions are already being implemented or considered by FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the continental governing body of football. For instance, FIFA has increased the number of spots for CAF from the current five to nine or ten for the 2026 World Cup, which will have 48 teams instead of 32. This means that almost every African country can realistically dream of qualifying for the World Cup and have a chance to participate. FIFA has also pledged to invest more in football development in Africa, through its FIFA Forward program, which aims to provide more financial and technical support to its member associations. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has said that he wants to see African football change gear and embark on a new era, with greater investment and more frequent and competitive tournaments.
CAF has also taken steps to improve the quality and attractiveness of African football, by changing the format and timing of the AFCON, which will now be played every four years instead of every two years, and in June and July instead of January and February, to avoid clashing with the European club season. CAF has also announced the creation of a new pan-African club competition, the African Super League, which will feature 20 of the best clubs from the continent, and will offer more exposure and revenue for the participants.
These initiatives are promising and exciting for the future of African football, but they will not guarantee success overnight. African teams will still have to work hard and smart to close the gap with the world's best, and to overcome the challenges and obstacles that they face on and off the pitch. They will also have to believe in themselves and their abilities, and not be intimidated or discouraged by their opponents or critics. They will have to play with pride and passion, but also with discipline and strategy. They will have to learn from their mistakes and failures, but also from their achievements and victories.
Ivory Coast's AFCON triumph is one of those victories that can inspire and motivate African teams and fans to aim higher and dream bigger. It is a sign of Africa's rising football power, but also a reminder of the work that still needs to be done. It is a celebration of African football, but also a challenge to African football. It is a moment of glory, but also a call to action.
Can an African team win the World Cup? It is not impossible, but it is not easy either. It will take time, effort, and change. But it will also take hope, faith, and courage. And above all, it will take love. Love for the game, love for the continent, and love for each other.