An African team in the World Cup semi-finals?

African champions, Nigeria, go into the 2014 World Cup with the best chance of making a big impression.

Roger Milla of Cameroon celebrates during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

No European nation has won the World Cup when it has been held in South America, and the potential for teams such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay to pose a major challenge should be taken seriously. Although the marketing campaigns of major multinationals sell the event as a stage for brilliant individual players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, the last few tournaments have seen excellent team performances consistently overshadow outstanding individuals. Less-fancied teams such as Uruguay in 2010, South Korea in 2002 and Croatia in 1998 have all made it to the semi-final stage through discipline, drive and collective effort. This year, perhaps, an African team can make that step too.

On paper it is the Super Eagles, the champions of Africa, who go into the tournament with the best chance of making a big impression out of all the African sides. Nigeria have a strong squad of powerful and skillful players to call on, and have shown no sign in recent years of the kinds of internal divisions which plagued past campaigns. Their secret weapon is undoubtedly their indefatigable head coach Stephen Keshi, the man known affectionately as “Big Boss”. A no-nonsense centre-half as a player, Keshi won the African Cup of Nations as the captain of the Super Eagles in 1994, and after spells in charge of Togo and Mali he took over as manager of the Nigerian national team in 2011, with the team in disarray following its disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup. A man possessed of great natural authority and charisma, Keshi has set about comprehensively rebuilding Nigeria into an attacking force that can once again pose a threat on the continental and global scene.

“My vision is to bring back our style of play, which is attacking football, with speed, power and technique, which I think has been lacking for so many years,” Keshi said in a recent interview. “It’s not going to take one day or six months to get that done. It will take time.”

With Keshi at the helm, many established players — the likes of Obafemi Martins, Taye Taiwo and Yakubu — have given way to fresh blood, with young, dynamic talents such as Lazio’s all-action midfielder Ogenyi Onazi and pacey winger Ahmed Musa bursting on to the scene. Vincent Enyeama, one of the top-performing goalkeepers in Europe this season, remains a bulwark of stability between the posts, while Chelsea’s vastly experienced John Obi Mikel is the lynchpin of the side, deployed in a more advanced, creative role than the holding midfield position he fills at club level.

The good news for Nigeria is that by the time they face the skilful Argentineans in Group F, they may already have qualified, if they can secure good results against Iran in their opening tie, and tournament debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina. A second-place finish in their group would see them drawn against the first-placed team in a weak Group E, likely to be France.

If Nigeria have the best coach of the African teams, Ghana’s strength lies in the depth of their very gifted squad and in the experience built up through good performances at the last two tournaments. Though the Black Stars have stumbled in recent Nations Cups, they have nonetheless looked by far the best equipped African team to challenge on the world stage over the past decade. Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah is a key player, though given the range of midfield options available to coach Kwesi “Silent Killer” Appiah, his single most important squad member remains forward Asamoah Gyan, who is in line to become only the fourth African to score in three different World Cup tournaments.

A winner-takes-all tie against the Portugal of Cristiano Ronaldo looks likely, but if Ghana can rediscover the form that saw them blast six goals past Egypt in qualifying, the slick-haired Real Madrid superstar may be in for a shock.

Perhaps the African side whose performance is hardest to predict are Ivory Coast. Blessed with CAF African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure, who goes into the tournament as the world’s finest midfielder on current form, coach Sabri Lamouchi’s task is to find a system which allows the creative talents of Toure and the effervescent winger Gervinho to unlock defences. The inexperienced Lamouchi faces a major selection dilemma in the striker’s position. Didier Drogba is team captain and retains huge respect within the Ivorian game. But Wilfried Bony, a similar type of forward to Drogba, finished the English Premier League season as the outstanding form striker in the country and looks far more of a goal threat than his aging rival. The ideal solution might be to start Bony and use Drogba as a high-impact substitute — provided the legendary forward can be persuaded to put the team’s interests above his personal pride.

For all their high-calibre players, Ivory Coast have been hugely disappointing in recent competitions. This time the draw has been kind to the Elephants, who should have too much for both Japan and Greece. Their second game, against Colombia, should be a superb encounter and is likely to decide the group winner.

Algeria have never made it beyond the group stage, and will face three tough games against Russia, South Korea and much-fancied Belgium. Fans of the Fennecs can take heart from the recent emergence of the elegant midfielder Nabil Bentaleb and the good form of rugged centre-forward Islam Slimani. Their key player is Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli.

Cameroon, who always seem to qualify for the World Cup despite weak performances at continental level, face difficult games against Mexico, Croatia and hosts Brazil. Although their biggest goal threat is likely to be 22-year-old Vincent Aboubakar, all the focus, as ever, will be on Samuel Eto’o as he competes in his fourth World Cup tournament (btw don’t miss Ntone Edjabe’s brilliant piece on Cameroon for the FT). The four-time African player of the year recently dismissed Jose Mourinho’s suggestion that he is in fact older than 33, and promised to emulate his boyhood hero Roger Milla and keep playing until he is 41.

Asked about the challenge of taking on the hosts, “le petit Milla” insists he is undaunted. “We beat the Brazilians at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,” he recalled. “There was a certain Ronaldinho in the team and many others. Eto’o is not scared. Cameroon is not scared.”

Think you know football? Test your skills against AIAC bloggers, top African football journalists and other fans by joining our World Cup fantasy league. Register, pick your team and join our league, “AIAC Superleague” — then invite all your friends to join too. But hurry! The tournament kicks off tomorrow.

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  • This is an edited excerpt from a preview written for The Africapitalist magazine, and is republished with permission.

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