ZURICH: There is a tendency in every FIFA World Cup™ year to recall little beyond the winners and the most sparkling performances at the finals.
Looked at in those terms, 2014 could seem something of a disappointment for African football, with only two sides reaching the Round of 16 in Brazil and neither advancing to the quarter-finals.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the last 12 months have served up undeniable excitement across the continent, both at club and international level, with some of Africa’s keenest talents shining brightly:
Brazil 2014: Algeria and Nigeria impress
Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi are both genuine icons of the Algerian game and African legends, but even they would have to admit that their achievements were surpassed in 2014 as Les Fennecs reached a World Cup knockout phase for the first time. “Ever since I’ve played for the national side, people have always talked to me about that generation,” midfielder Medhi Lacen told FIFA.com.
“They’ve always been a reference point. Before each game and every tournament, people bring up that team and their exploits. What we managed to do kind of erases – so to speak – what the generation of 1982 to 1986 achieved. We were able to do even better, which is hard to believe.”
Perhaps, but Algeria deserved plenty of credit for qualifying from a group including Belgium, Korea Republic and Russia, before giving eventual victors Germany a real scare in the last 16. Had they made better use of several clear chances, and faced any goalkeeper other than Manuel Neuer, who knows how far the Algerians could have progressed?
What is certain is that Germany would have been packing their bags a lot sooner than they ultimately did.
As for Nigeria, they lived up to their billing as African champions by advancing along with Algeria into the Round of 16, whereas Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon all fell by the wayside.
The Super Eagles finished runners-up to Argentina in a section also featuring Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran, and although they could not get past France, they gave an exciting glimpse of their quality to suggest they could go on to dominate the African scene for some time.
Equatorial Guinea 2015: giants stumble
Appearances proved deceptive, however, as Nigeria failed to build on their Brazil campaign and 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations win. Despite a rich reservoir of talent, Stephen Keshi’s men finished third in their qualifying group for the 2015 continental finals, pipped to a top-two place by South Africa and Congo.
The holders will thus miss out along with fellow heavyweights and seven-time winners Egypt, plus Togo, Angola – who enjoyed a rise to prominence in the 2000s – and Ethiopia, champions in 1962 and so close to booking a ticket to Brazil 2014.
Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon all made the cut, in contrast, but none of them can expect an easy ride in Equatorial Guinea.
Unlike Nigeria, Algeria maintained their summer momentum to clinch top spot in their qualifying group and will be confident of having their say at the finals, while Tunisia emerged unbeaten as they won a section that also comprised Egypt and Senegal.
It will be fascinating, too, to see how Cape Verde Islands fare after causing a sensation by topping their pool ahead of Zambia, having already upset many predictions with their displays last time around.
Meanwhile, South Africa look set to be an unknown quantity as they undergo rebuilding, and Congo DR will be keen to make their presence felt after squeezing through as best third-place finishers.
Club conquests: new winners and old hands
Algeria’s sole representatives in the 2014 CAF Champions League, ES Setif entered the competition despite the reservations of the Algerian Football Federation (FAF), who felt the country’s clubs were not ready and feared the worst.
Those concerns were swept aside as Setif downed heavyweights Esperance and TP Mazembe on their way to a showpiece victory against Vita Club, the Black Eagles rising to the summit of the African game to earn a place in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The Algerian outfit took over as champions from last year’s winners Al Ahly, with the most successful club in the history of the competition having to content themselves with triumph in the CAF Confederation Cup.
The Cairo giants lifted the trophy by edging Côte d’Ivoire side Sewe Sport in the final, thus ensuring a year of dominance for teams from the north of the continent.
Legendary duo call it a day
Often compared to each other and regular opponents on the pitch, Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o are rightly regarded as two of the greatest African players of all time, having spent their careers amassing both goals and titles.
Forwards, captains and emblems of their respective national sides – Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon respectively – the two prolific predators brought the curtain down on their international careers at almost the same time, and in very similar fashion – after low-key World Cup campaigns, and with their starting places under threat due to a combination of age and injuries.
That final Brazilian chapter was a cruel way for both men to bid farewell, but they continue to show their worth in the Premier League, with 36-year-old Drogba scoring goals and winning games for Chelsea and Eto’o, 33, doing likewise at Everton.
Women’s football: Nigeria crowned
With the world of women’s football looking forward to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada™, this year offered up a pair of mouth-watering appetisers in the form of the African qualifiers, held on Namibian soil in October, and the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
Both events were lit up by Asisat Oshoala, who provided both goals and high-quality performances for Nigeria, including a superb seven efforts at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Four of those strikes were rattled in against Korea DPR in the semi-finals, as Oshoala became only the third player in the history of the competition to bury a quartet of goals in one game.
She left for home with the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Boot in her luggage, and promptly continued her exploits in the continental qualifiers, scoring twice against semi-final rivals Nigeria and slotting another goal past Cameroon in the showpiece.
As for Cameroon, they may have narrowly missed out on the African crown, but they made history in 2014 by claiming a first ever berth at the Women’s World Cup.
They will be joined by fellow debutants Côte d’Ivoire, who can look forward to a meeting with two-time winners Germany, while Cameroon are set to tackle holders Japan. Both will no doubt be hoping to spring memorable upsets – and earn pride of place in next year’s review of the African game.