It’s a World Cup year! Another 32 teams have made it to the main tournament in Russia. But for all of the celebrations, there’s also sadness for all the teams that fail to qualify. Many of these don’t expect to be there anyway, but for some, like the Italians, the Dutch, the Cameroonians, and the Americans, there will always be the question of “what if…?”
As someone who has always been interested in international football ahead of major club football, I’ve often thought about that question for my own country and others. So to mark this World Cup year, this is a series of articles on the teams that should have been at a tournament.
These don’t have to be the best teams to not qualify. They don’t have to be the teams that got closest to qualifying without making it. But they are amongst the most significant absentees from that year, be it for being a major nation surprisingly not qualifying, or because for their country it was a landmark near-miss.
CAF’s qualifying process for the 1994 World Cup was one of the most dramatic ever. This was the first time Africa had been granted three teams at the finals, and this small increase in recognition was long overdue. The standard of African international football had risen considerably throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and the preliminaries would demonstrate it, as each of the three final groups would be decided in their last game. As in Europe at the same time, the fates of teams were balanced on a knife-edge, and three in particularly narrowly missed out on remarkable achievements that belied their status and backgrounds.
The fates of Ivory Coast and Zambia had been particularly intertwined, as the teams had met in the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations in 1992, some 20 months before they played the deciding matches in their groups. Zambia’s neighbours Zimbabwe joined them despite no past record of football success, with players from all three teams left wondering staring into the distance, wondering what might have been. The three days in which the groups decided may just have been the most decisive period in African football history, perhaps determining the development of several of the continent’s leading football nations.
Today we are familiar with the idea of Ivory Coast as one of African football’s top teams. For more than a decade, they have consistently challenged for the biggest prizes for any African team – the Africa Cup of Nations title, and World Cup qualification. This came with a “golden generation” of players headed by Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Touré, Didier Zokora and other players in Europe’s top leagues.
However, Ivorian football history didn’t begin in 2005. They finished third in the Cup of Nations as long ago as 1965 (before semi-finals were introduced), and reached the semi-finals in 1968 and 1970. Nonetheless, a fallow period ensued in the 1970s, and they didn’t reach the semi-finals again until 1986, where they lost to a Roger Milla goal to Cameroon.
The turning point that would transform Ivory Coast from outsiders to contenders came in the early 1990s. After group stage exits in 1988 and 1990, they arrived in Senegal for the 1992 tournament under Yeo Martial as an outside bet for the overall title. At this time, 12 teams qualified for the Cup of Nations, and they were divided into four groups of three teams. Les Éléphants were placed with traditional powerhouse Algeria and the Republic of Congo. While the Algerians would be tough opponents, they had avoided most of the favourites – Cameroon and Morocco had been drawn together with Zaire, as had Egypt, Ghana and Zambia. Two teams from each group would go through, something Ivory Coast could be confident of here, although they had not progressed out of the group stage since 1986.
African football at this point had reached something of a crossroads. The 12-team Cup of Nations demonstrated how competitive it had become and how small the gaps were between the best teams, but the number of spots available at the World Cup lagged way behind. While there were many fewer European-based African players at this stage, the standard of play was increasing rapidly. The Ivorians were set to typify this.
Though there were no household names in this Ivorian side, it was well set-up for tournament football by Martial. Five members of the team were based in France: Youssouf Fofana of Monaco, Didier Otokoré of Auxerre, Oumar Ben Salah of Le Mans, Joel Tiéhi of Le Havre, and Moussa Traoré of Olympique Alès. Goalkeeper Alain Gouaméné was the only other foreign-based player at Raja Casablanca.
The rest of the squad were split between the dominant Ivorian club sides, ASEC and Africa Sports. The star attacker was to be ASEC’s diminutive striker Abdoulaye “Ben Badi” Traoré, who had returned home after aborted attempts to settle in Portugal and France. Years later he would become the national team’s record goalscorer prior to the emergence of Didier Drogba.
Algeria were the holders, having won the 1990 tournament on home soil, but this was a team in decline; Rabah Madjer was now 33, Djamel Menad was 31, and coach Abdelhamid Kermali now in the last weeks of his reign. With goals from Ben Badi, Fofana and Tiéhi, Ivory Coast scored a dramatic 3-0 win against the odds, effectively guaranteeing their place in the next round. They sealed this with a 0-0 draw against Congo, who also qualified with a further draw against Algeria; the holders were eliminated after just two games.
Ivory Coast’s quarter-final was against Zambia, who had surprisingly beaten Egypt to qualify. The game was locked in a stalemate until the fourth minute of extra time, when another ASEC player, Donald-Olivier Sié, scored what proved to be the only goal of the game. This led to the semi-finals, where they were drawn with Cameroon, the favourites for the tournament after their run to the quarter-finals in Italy two years before. Though they were shorn of Roger Milla and Thomas Nkono, this was still the strongest team in the draw. They had just knocked out hosts Senegal, managed by Claude Le Roy, with an 89th minute goal from Ernest Ebongué and so could feel confident of securing a place in the final.
Not so. Once again, Ivory Coast were resilient. The match went to penalties after a 0-0 draw, and amazingly Cyril Makanaky, Francois Omam-Biyik and Joseph-Antoine Bell all failed to score, giving Les Éléphants a 3-1 shootout win and a first ever appearance in the Cup of Nations final.
This would be against the Black Stars of Ghana, managed by Otto Pfister, who had beaten Zambia, Egypt, Congo and Nigeria en route to the final. They had been led through the tournament by the brilliant Abedi Pele of Marseille, who would later be named Player of the Tournament and African Footballer of the Year for his efforts.
However, crucially he was suspended for the final. Ghana could still call on talented players like Tony Yeboah, Prince Polley and 17-year-old hot prospect Nii Lamptey, but their attack was far less formidable without their legendary figurehead, as they planned a way to win their first Cup of Nations in ten years.
Indeed, the final was to be another goalless 120 minutes. Ghana missed several good chances, with Gouaméné performing more heroics in the Ivorian goal. It again went to a shootout. Four penalties in, 17-year-old defender Isaac Asare missed. With the very next penalty, Tiéhi could clinch glory – his shot hit the post, bounced off goalkeeper Edward Ansah, and trickled wide.
After Yeboah scored Ghana’s fifth penalty to equalise, the shootout continued with a further 12 successful efforts, including both keepers, to become the first major international shootout with every player taking a penalty. Anthony Baffoe, the Fortuna Dusseldorf defender who had taken Ghana’s first penalty, stepped up to take their 12th. Gouaméné saved it, and Ivorian defender Basile Aka Kouamé scored his second effort to give Les Éléphants their first Cup of Nations win.
With the greatest respect to Ivory Coast, this was not a triumph for flair or ingenuity. Like Greece in Euro 2004, their unexpected success had been based on solidity, as well as a small amount of fortune: they conceded no goals in the tournament, even against some of the continent’s most potent strike-forces – an incredible achievement or a huge fluke, depending on your perspective. Gouaméné and Aka Kouamé were named to the Team of the Tournament, along with midfielder Serge-Alain Maguy. By contrast, their attackers had contributed little, with just four goals scored in five matches, three of which came in the opening game.
Coach Yeo Martial became a national hero, and he led his team into the start of World Cup qualifying, as well as the King Fahd Cup, where they conceded 9 goals in two games against Argentina and the USA. Their World Cup first round group, beginning in October 1992, would be against Niger and Botswana, with fourth team Sudan withdrawing. Despite an opening 6-0 win against Botswana, the Ivorians again struggled for goals while not conceding – they drew 0-0 against Niger and in Botswana, before winning the last game 1-0 courtesy of a goal from Ben Badi to clinch their spot in the second and final round of qualification. Martial would not manage them any further, though. He was replaced by Philippe Troussier, manager of the ASEC side which had dominated the Ivorian Premier Division.
Qualification now got much tougher. There would be three groups of three teams, all fiercely competitive – there were no lightweights at this stage, and every match home and away was crucial, as only the group winners could qualify. For Ivory Coast, there could be no easy draw. They would have been pleased to draw Algeria again, after beating them in 1992, although they had surprisingly beaten Ghana in the first round, another step to ensuring Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah would never play at a World Cup. However, both teams would have been less than thrilled to see the up-and-coming Nigeria team in the same group as them. The Super Eagles had narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1990 tournament, and like Ivory Coast, they were bidding to make the finals for the first time.
The groups began in April 1993, lasting six months. The first game for the Ivorians would be away to Algeria, always very tough to beat at home. An early goal from Ben Salah was cancelled out by an equaliser from Abdelhafid Tasfaout, the first goal Ivory Coast had conceded in a competitive African match since Cup of Nations qualifying in January 1991. Despite this, an away draw was a very valuable result heading into the crucial home game with Nigeria. Only a win would suffice, as anything less would hand the initiative to the Super Eagles. Rashidi Yekini’s fifth-minute goal seemed to signal trouble, but Ben Badi’s 70th-minute penalty sparked a late comeback, sealed by Ahmed Ouattara’s winner five minutes late. Les Éléphants were now in pole position.
Nigeria came from behind to demolish Algeria 4-1 in the next game, which left the Algerians needing to win Abidjan in July. However, the Ivorians delivered the knockout blow in the 86th minute, with Tiéhi scoring the only goal of the game. With five points out of six, all they needed was a draw in Lagos in September to seal their place at the World Cup.
In front of 65,000 fans, they crumbled. Goals from Thompson Oliha, Daniel Amokachi and two from Yekini gave Nigeria a huge 4-1 win. The team that had defended so admirably over the past two years had fallen apart at exactly the wrong moment. Not only did it keep the group alive, but the huge swing in goal difference meant that they only needed a draw in Algiers to leapfrog Ivory Coast and qualify ahead of them. Sadly for the Ivorians, that’s exactly what happened – Finidi George put Nigeria ahead, and though Tasfaout scored an equaliser, the 1-1 draw was exactly what they needed.
Having destroyed their World Cup dreams, Nigeria would once again defeat Ivory Coast eight months later. The teams met in the semi-finals of the Cup of Nations, the Ivorians having once again beaten Ghana in the quarter-finals. Four goals in a pulsating first half left the score at 2-2, and with no more goals, it went to penalties. In the shootout, Nigeria came from behind to win 4-2, ending Ivory Coast’s reign as champions, and they went on to win the final to claim the title for themselves. It was the start of a glorious year for the Super Eagles, culminating in their distinctive run to the second round in the World Cup, where they were narrowly beaten by Italy. From this point, Nigerian football has rarely looked back, qualifying for all the World Cups bar one and becoming one of the leading producers and exporters of African talent in football.
By contrast, it would take over a decade for Ivory Coast to establish themselves in a similar position. Their collapse in Lagos was a decisive moment, stalling their development as a football nation. In qualification for the 1998 World Cup, they failed to even make the final group stage after losing to Congo, while in qualifying for 2002 they finished five points behind Tunisia after failing to win three of their last four matches.
It wasn’t until 2005 that they sealed qualification for a World Cup for the first time, and they wouldn’t make the Cup of Nations final again until the following year. In 2015, history came full circle – they at last won the Cup of Nations for a second time, again beating Ghana on penalties. But two years later, they stumbled to fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over a decade. With the special group of players around Drogba and the Tourés gone, they now have to adapt back to being one team out of many in a competitive African football scene.