All African countries at the World Cup on merit
It’s an obvious statement to make, but sometimes World Cup qualification lies. The tables don’t lie, they say, but they can. A year can be a long time in international football, especially when there’s been a major tournament (AFCON) during that year. Coaches can change, teams can untangle and teams can form and, with that, the public mood.
Take, for example, Cameroon before the last World Cup. It came down to a double header against Tunisia who did everything but breach them in Rades. In the return leg in Yaounde Cameroon managed to pull a performance out of the bag to comfortably qualify.
Come the World Cup, it was clear they were not good enough to be there. While Tunisia were unlikely to set the world alight themselves, their campaign surely wouldn’t have been a car-crash of Cameroonian proportions, on the pitch or off it.
Ivory Coast themselves, as poor as they have been, were somehow one game away from qualifying for the World Cup. For their sake, and African football’s sake, the football Gods allowed the more deserving team through but that was a result very close to lying.
When looking at the five countries that have made it, they all deserve it on almost any metric. Nigeria, Egypt and Senegal have excelled from start to finish. AFCON 2017 was the making of Morocco and they have only become more cohesive and easier on the eye. Tunisia changed coaches but their results on the road, in Kinshasa and Conakry, have been particularly impressive.
Wilmots has been a disaster
One win, one draw and four losses in six games. Marc Wilmot’s time with Ivory Coast has been a foreseeable disaster, and not just a disaster – but a disaster that was worse than first envisaged in February when Wilmots was appointed. He will go down in history as one of the worst managerial appointments in the history of African football.
In hindsight, Ivory Coast would have been better off sticking with Michel Dussuyer. For all the mistakes in AFCON, he had got Ivory Coast off to a good start in World Cup qualification, with a good win over Mali and then a draw in Morocco. The major issues he left behind, like the structure in midfield and blurriness over his best starting XI, have only exacerbated in devastating effect under Wilmots.
In his short spell, Wilmots has turned one of Africa’s most formidable home sides into a friendly patch where teams come to pick up a relatively easy three points. Wilmots replacement will be starting from catch; he arrives with some good players at his disposal. He will come into a team short of confidence and with very few strengths.
Renard’s calmness transmits to his team
Throughout the week in the lead up to the crunch game against his former side Renard had talked the talk. Just as we saw with Zambia and Ivory Coast on their way to AFCON triumphs, the talk was intended to take as much pressure away from his team as possible. Not qualifying for the World Cup wouldn’t be a disaster, he said, and that it wouldn’t define them. And that in the event of non-qualification he would take responsibility for that rather than the players.
It was clear that as long as Morocco played to their normal standards, a draw wouldn’t be out of reach against a tactically bankrupt coach in Wilmots. Though Morocco were not at their scintillating best, they were less nervous and committed fewer errors.
Defences were key
All five qualified sides only lost 1 match between them out of 25, and that defeat was given to Egypt at the hands of Uganda. That result isn’t shameful because Uganda is one of the hardest places to go and leave with anything, as any fallen victims will attest to.
None of the qualified sides conceded more than 4 goals in the group stages, with Morocco conceding no goals at all. This highlights, as ever, the importance of having a strong defence and being hard to beat. It is what has separated the teams going to Russia and those watching on the sofa.