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Finding a place for Africa

Football is widely accepted as being the people’s game, but for a long time, that was merely a mantra without meaning. Between 1938 and 1970, Africa did not make a single appearance at the tournament that marketed itself as a competition for everyone.

The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about 100 years of solitude in which one of the main themes is the inevitable repeating of history. African football only had 32 years in the wilderness, but there was a definite trend that explained their exclusion. Limited opportunity, political motives and a lack of understanding about the cultures from the continent continually saw Africa sidelined -- sometimes of their own doing and once to the benefit of a European country.

Immediately after Egypt were dumped out of the 1934 edition of the tournament, they entered again for the following event in 1938. They were placed in Group Four of qualifying -- one of nine pools that would serve as qualifying for European countries -- and were due to play Romania in December 1937.

At the time, the match fell in the month of Ramadan (which moves according to a lunar calendar), and Egypt asked FIFA to reschedule. Their chances of getting the change approved were blown out of the water when Egypt invited Austrian side Vienna FC to play an exhibition match during the same fasting period. FIFA were justifiably unimpressed with their double standards, and Romania were given a walkover into the World Cup.

The Second World War had meant no World Cup in 1942 or 1946, and in the aftermath of the conflict, no African team opted to try and reach the 1950 version. By 1954, when Egypt mounted a second attempt, the same qualification process was in place. There was no separate category for Africa, so Egypt were placed in the European section. They were drawn in Group Nine and had to play Italy, to whom they lost 2-1 at home and 5-1 in Milan.

By the time 1958’s World Cup was looming, Africa had a designated spot reserved at the World Cup, but they had to share it with Asia. That effectively narrowed the path for a team from the continent to get to the global showpiece because they had to go through a preliminary round that included 10 teams and could have been as many as 12, but Ethiopia and South Korea were refused entry into the qualifiers.

Egypt and Sudan were permitted to take part, and both advanced beyond the first round. Cyprus withdrew from their clash with Egypt, giving them a free passage, while Sudan beat Syria 1-0 at home and drew 1-1 in Damascus. The second round was to contain round-robin matches between Sudan, Egypt, Indonesia and Israel, but the two African countries and Indonesia refused to play Israel for political reasons.

Because Israel had not played any matches in qualifying, and FIFA had changed the rules to state that no team could progress to the World Cup without earning the right to be there, they organised a playoff against Wales. That is how a European team managed to occupy the spot reserved for one of Africa or Asia’s squad at the 1958 event.

Africa’s numbers had grown by 1962, and seven countries applied to compete in the qualifiers. The number of places reserved for Africa remained at just one, but even that was not guaranteed because they would have to beat a European side to progress to the World Cup. Ethiopia chose to compete directly in the UEFA pool where they played Israel and lost 4-2 on aggregate.

The other six African sides were split into three groups of two, but only two of those pools took the field. Sudan and the United Arab Republic (an amalgamation of Egypt and Syria) withdrew because FIFA did not allow them to reschedule matches to avoid the monsoon. Ghana beat Nigeria 6-3 on aggregate in their two matches, but Morocco and Tunisia could not be separated. They each beat the other 2-1 and then agreed to play a third match at a neutral venue in Italy. They drew that 1-1 and, with no penalty shootouts allowed, a coin toss had to decide who advanced.

Morocco’s luck proved better and they lined up against Ghana, who they first played to a goalless draw against and then beat 1-0 to set up a date with Spain. Morocco lost that tie 4-2. Sadly, Morocco played seven matches in that qualifying campaign and still did not manage to reach the World Cup.

Africa was starting to sense the unfairness directed its way and it only got worse for them come 1966, when 17 countries decided to vie for places. They were still confined to one spot, which was then shared between three continents, including Asia and Oceania. French Congo and South Africa, who were banned because of Apartheid, were ruled out of the qualifying process by FIFA and the other 15 countries boycotted in protest. Africa made its voice heard at that edition by not being there, and by 1970 it had its own spot, solely for Africa.