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Who is Africa’s greatest World Cup team, and can a squad in Qatar go one better?



Morocco’s victory over Belgium on Sunday, followed by Ghana’s win over South Korea and Cameroon’s thrilling draw with Serbia, has fuelled hope that Africa’s wait for another classic World Cup team may finally be over.

The five teams currently representing Africa on the grandest stage in Qatar are walking in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, but it would take a doctoral thesis to definitively say which African team is the best of all time.

But, here, ESPN assesses the claims of the magnificent generations that could stake a claim to being Africa’s top World Cup team, with the aim of settling a debate that — until a team reaches the semifinals — looks set to continue.

In third place: Ghana 2010

To date the most recent African team to reach the quarterfinals, Ghana were the only African success story of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — the first and only on African soil.

Despite (again) being drawn into a tough group alongside Germany, Serbia and Australia, a pair of Asamoah Gyan penalties were enough to secure four points and take the Black Stars through.

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In the round of 16, Gyan again proved the hero, striking a 93rd-minute extra-time winner against the United States to set up a quarterfinal with a Uruguay team brimming with talent.

The match would go down in legend, with the pair cancelling each other out during a gripping contest before — in the final minute of extra time — Luis Suarez handled on the line to block Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header.

Suarez saw red, Gyan missed the resulting penalty, and while Baby Jet demonstrated courage to step up and convert the first spot kick in the shootout, misses from John Mensah and Adiyiah meant the end of the road.

“2010 are the Golden Generation,” rightback John Paintsil told ESPN, “the squad who represented Ghana in the World Cup.

“Since [2022] qualification started, until now, we’ve been the topic of the town, [people] talking about 2010, our performance, and all of that,” he continued.

“We made history, and it’s always there.”

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No African side has ever come closer to the final four, and the sense of injustice still burns for the Black Stars, while subsequent Ghana sides have struggled to emulate their predecessors.

“When [the current squad] hear about 2010, it should encourage them, even motivate them, but it needs to be polished when it’s talked about,” Paintsil added.

“Because when we say things in disrespectful ways to the current generation, saying that the 2010 players are better, it’s a sign of disrespect and can cause problems to the current team.”

READ: World Cup group stage deciders: teams in trouble, surprise packages

In second place: Cameroon 1990

Africa’s pioneers Cameroon broke new ground for the continent’s teams by winning a knockout game at the tournament, to reach the quarters in 1990.

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Inspired by 38-year-old Roger Milla, whose iconic Makossa corner flag celebration remains one of the enduring images of African participation at the World Cup, the Indomitable Lions defeated Colombia in extra time in the Last 16 following an infamous error by the erratic Rene Higuita.

They also pulled off one of the biggest shocks in tournament history — the Miracle of Milan — when they defeated Diego Maradona and reigning champions Argentina in the opener.

Francois Omam-Biyik’s leaping header settled an ill-tempered clash in which two Cameroonians were sent off, as the reigning champions had no answer to the Indomitable Lions’ unabashed physicality.

Milla came off the bench to lead an inspiring Lions comeback against England in the quarters, but a pair of Gary Lineker penalties — one in extra time – brought the run to an end.

“Honestly, we didn’t really think that we were writing history,” goalkeeper Bell told ESPN in 2019. “We thought about the present moment, that we had a match to win and we wanted to win it.

“It’s only afterwards we said: ‘That has never been done before’, because don’t forget, if you think too much about history, that can put the breaks on you, it can block you, because it can seem enormous.”

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The victory over Argentina, and the subsequent campaign, changed the perception of African football as Cameroon — with odds of 500/1 to win before the tournament — set the standard for African teams.

And the winner is: Senegal 2002

Twelve years after Cameroon stunned Argentina at the San Siro, Senegal emulated the feat with uncanny similarity, before also proceeding to the quarters.

Like Cameroon, Senegal were up against the reigning champions in their tournament opener, and like Cameroon, the Teranga Lions outclassed one of the favourites.

Both squads were packed with ostensibly unremarkable, French-based journeymen, and they also dispatched opponents wearing yellow to reach the Last Eight.

However, various factors about Senegal’s success in South Korea and Japan in 2002 make it arguably more impressive than Cameroon’s campaign a decade before.

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Unlike the Indomitable Lions, the Teranga Lions had no previous track record in the competition, with their 1-0 victory over France in Seoul their first ever appearance on the grandest stage.

It made the victory even more startling, with the Lions — who had never even won the Africa Cup of Nations at that point — a complete unknown quantity at the World Cup.

Similarly, while Maradona had inspired Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, he was considered a standout player in a team only given 11/1 odds to win by UK bookmaker Coral.

By contrast, France, ahead of 2002, were given 4/1 odds by Ladbrokes, having followed up their 1998 World Cup success by winning the European Championship in 2000 — becoming the first side to hold both titles simultaneously.

Injuries to Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires denied France two of their star performers, but in Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and David Trezeguet, Les Bleus still boasted a plethora of world-class options.

Senegal’s triumph was also a scintillating tactical success, as Bruno Metsu’s Lions used the pace and trickery of El Hadji Diouf to expose France’s ageing centre-backs, while the tenacious Aliou Cisse and towering Papa Bouba Diop forged an imperious midfield barrier.

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“I dreamed of this match, thought about this match and now it’s come true,” the late Metsu said after the victory.

“It’s a great reward for our players and for the Senegalese people. We had a tactical game plan and you have to feel satisfied when it comes off.”

Whereas Cameroon 1990 are remembered for their brutality, there was a style and a control about Senegal in 2002 — Salif Diao’s sweeping counter-attacking team goal against Denmark, for example, being remembered as one of the goals of the tournament.

While Milla’s dancing gave Cameroon’s cynicism a veneer of joy, Senegal’s own exuberance in 2002 left its own lasting legacy — inspiring the current generation who, 20 years later, would clinch the country’s first ever Africa Cup of Nations crown.

Honourable mentions:

• Egypt, 1934: For the first 44 years of the World Cup, they were Africa’s only representatives, and while their record of played one, lost one isn’t particularly encouraging, they did battle back from two goals down against Hungary before falling apart in the second half and losing 4-2. Al-Masry forward Abdelrahman Fawzy netted twice, and had a third controversially ruled out for offside. Considering the quality in the Hungary team — iconic names such as Gyorgy Sarosi, Istvan Avar, Gyula Lazar — this was an admirable first effort by the Pharaohs.

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• Tunisia, 1978: The first African team to win World Cup match, Tunisia came from behind to defeat Mexico 3-1 in Rosario in their tournament debut. Tarak Dhiab, Hamadi Agrebi, Temime Lehzami and the late Mohamed Akid were some of the star names, and they would go on to hold West Germany before defeat by Poland denied them progression.

• Algeria, 1982: The most unfortunate team on this list, Algeria stunned West Germany 2-1 in their World Cup debut, with Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi starring. They defeated Chile 3-2, but weren’t able to progress due to the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’, as the Austrians and the Germans colluded in their final game to ensure a result that saw both of them through at the Fennecs’ expense. This poor sportsmanship prompted a change in the FIFA rules, but came too late to save Algeria. A great team never truly got the credit they deserved.

• Cameroon, 1982: Cameroon were a special side in the 80s, qualifying for their first World Cup, and reaching three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations finals. At the ’82 World Cup in Spain, they became only the third team in the tournament’s history to be eliminated without losing a game — having held Poland, Peru and eventual champions Italy. Thomas N’Kono, Emmanuel Kunde, Theo Abega and Roger Milla would go on to enjoy World Cup success eight years later.

• Morocco, 1986: The first African side to reach the knockouts, Morocco went through their group unbeaten — finishing the opening round ahead of England after defeating Portugal 3-1. West Germany required an 88th-minute winner to eliminate the Atlas Lions in the Last 16.

• Nigeria, 1994: The Super Eagles’ Golden Generation followed up on ’94 Nations Cup success with a memorable performance at their maiden Mondiale. They topped their group — highlights included Rashidi Yekini’s thundering goal and iconic celebration against Bulgaria — and eventual finalists Italy required extra time to beat them in the Last 16.

• Ghana, 2006: The Black Stars showed immense character on their first World Cup appearance to overcome an opening defeat by eventual winners Italy. They defeated fancied second-ranked Czech Republic — the biggest World Cup upset ever, according to the ELO world football ratings — and the United States to escape their group. In the knockouts, Ronaldo and Brazil proved too much, although that team truly announced Ghana on the world stage.

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• Algeria, 2014: The first North African team in almost three decades to reach the knockouts, Algeria led Belgium until the final 20 minutes, smashed South Korea 4-2 in a mesmerising attacking display, and then held Russia to progress to the Last 16. Here, they neutralised Germany for 90 minutes, with the eventual champions requiring extra time to down the Fennecs.



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