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Tuesday, June 20, 2006
A disservice to African football?

Norman Hubbard

Forget England's woes or Argentina's excellence; Togo are the story of the World Cup.

Manager Otto Pfister resigns and returns before the first game, the team almost opt not to play the second and are eliminated before they kick off in the third. It's compelling stuff, each turn seemingly more implausible than the last.

From the most obscure participants in the tournament, Togo have become a talking point for millions unaware of the country's exact location.

They may have also set back the cause of African football by 20 years.

Because this is a Togo team that only serves to reinforce every dangerous stereotype of African football; speedy and talented but undisciplined and racked by in-fighting.

The chaotic organisation of an FA so capable of alienating their players seems anachronistic, the squabbling of players prioritising their bank balances over a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the World Cup frankly stupid.

Under the circumstances, a first-round exit was all too predictable. With preparation for their match with South Korea compromised by the absence of coach Otto Pfister and the build-up to the clash with Switzerland interrupted by players' meetings about boycotting the game, it is hard to think of a worse way to ready a team for the World Cup (except, perhaps, from being holed up in Baden-Baden with a shop-a-holic, publicity-friendly group of wives and girlfriends).

And all the while talk of bonuses was rendered irrelevant by back-to-back defeats for Togo.

In short, the feuding Togolese have a claim to be the team most ill-suited to the World Cup since Zaire in 1974. And yet they are not, by any means, the worst.

Mohamed Kader, their goalscorer against South Korea, has showed pace and potency in attack. Massamasso Tchangai has appeared an accomplished defender. And Kossi Agassa has been a commanding presence in goal. With a more constructive approach, they could have turned Group G into a four-horse race. Beating them, South Korea and Switzerland can testify, was no simple task. Instead, the idiosyncratic Pfister, a medallion-wearing pensioner with a penchant for bright clothing, may have to settle for cult status

And despite that, the feeling persists that, unlike every other continent, many of Africa's strongest sides are not at the World Cup.

Of its five representatives, only Tunisia and the Ivory Coast reached the quarter-finals of the African Nations Cup. Three of the last four, including winners Egypt, are not present in Germany. Cameroon and Nigeria, who established west Africa's regional dominance, and the arrivistes of 2002, Senegal, are also absent.

It led to the spectre of the entire African contingent returning home at the end of the group stage. Such fears were heightened when Ivory Coast had the misfortune to encounter two of the finest footballing sides in their opening matches. Even a different fixture list - and an earlier encounter with Serbia and Montenegro - could have enabled the forceful and skilful combination of Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, Arthur Boka, the Toures and the Kones to progress from a group containing Argentina and Holland.

So Ghana's exhilarating win against the Czech Republic had a significance that extended far beyond most other matches. It was Africa's first victory of the 2006 tournament and opened a path to the last 16 for the rank outsiders in the other toughest pool.

It was also utterly deserved. Perhaps the match of the tournament so far - Argentina's demolition of the Serbs was more of an exhibition - it showcased the power of the Ghanaians, especially the outstanding trio of Sulley Muntari, Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien in midfield.

The electrifying pace of striker Asamoah Gyan, meanwhile, means he may figure in the nightmares of plodding centre-halves. Praise can, just about, be qualified - a predilection for long-range and over-exuberant tackling conforms to more stereotypes - but is worth remembering the calibre of their victims.

And qualification for Ghana - which would come at the expense of the USA and either the Czechs or Italy - would provide a reminder of the threat the African elite pose.

Even Angola, rarely bracketed in that category, halted Mexico with a determined defensive display. Meanwhile Tunisia, the quiet achievers of north African football, will enter final group game against Ukraine with a place in the last 16 by no means an impossibility.

Unless Ghana can maintain the thrilling form they displayed against the Czechs, however, the African teams will struggle to repeat the feats of the Senegalese four years ago and Cameroon in 1990 and reach the quarter-finals.

Predictions of African excellence have, whenever they have been made, been focused on the next World Cup.

In 2010, those expectations could finally be realised. Staging the tournament in Africa is one factor that should help; the emergence of its outstanding sides from the qualifying groups certainly would. And so would the kind of professional approach that the majority of African sides now have, and where Togo were sadly missing.

So then Africa's status as the third hotbed of football - along with South America and Europe - should be confirmed in four years in South Africa. And Togo probably won't be there.

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