Michael Church

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 June, 2010, 12:00am

Much has been made of this World Cup being Africa's first as Fifa, world soccer's governing body, aims to embrace and reward an entire continent, attempting to correct an imbalance that has existed for decades in the global game.

In Johannesburg and elsewhere across the vast expanse of South Africa, the corporate entities that typically attach themselves to major sporting events - either in an official capacity or otherwise - are hailing this as a continental effort.

'Celebrate Africa's Humanity' is among the slogans being used extensively by Fifa and, with six African teams playing in the finals - the largest number in the tournament's 80-year history - there is certainly a greater profile for the continent than ever before.

Yet quantity does not necessarily correlate to quality and it remains to be seen just how many of the African nations can make a serious impact at a tournament where typically these countries under-perform.

Only two African countries - Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002 - have reached the last eight of the competition, while none has gone any further, and this despite both Cameroon and Nigeria winning gold at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 respectively.

Ivory Coast have been talked about as a possible challenger, while the home fans are convinced South Africa can still be involved when the competition reaches the sharp end in early July.

However, beyond the fortunes of the continent's representatives this year lies a more important long-term issue: the legacy left by the first World Cup on African soccer.

Can hosting the sport's greatest spectacle lift Africa out of the mire it has found itself in for too long? One man is not sure it can.

'This is a typical African syndrome, to say that the whole continent is involved, but here it's a country that is hosting the World Cup,' says Emmanuel Maradas, perhaps the leading authority on soccer in Africa.

'It's not the whole African continent as people are saying. Because of the solidarity between the nations they may say we are with the South Africans and it's an African competition, but really it's a South African competition.

'We may say that the legacy from this World Cup will be huge for South Africa, that's correct.

'Regarding the rest of the continent, I doubt it will inject something into the game, although institutions like Fifa are making some contributions by launching schemes like 'Win in Africa with Africa' and building some pitches, [with] artificial turf etc in the deprived cities. But is that enough to lift the African game?'

Few are as well qualified as Maradas to gauge the impact of this tournament on the continent.

For more than a decade, the Chad native, who currently resides in London, was publisher and editor-in-chief of the authoritative African Soccer magazine and he now works for Fifa in an advisory role.

For all the continent's huge collective potential, Maradas believes it is the individual nations themselves who must work at the grass-roots level to ensure progress.

'The development of the African game must come from the nations themselves,' he says. 'They have to take the responsibility because the game is the future of the youth and a country that doesn't take care of its youth is a country that is bound to disappear.

'If you care for the youth you have to do something for them, and that means building a structure with proper plans for youth development in the national associations and making sure they play regularly week in and week out.

'But for the time being, I don't know if we have a vision for Africa. Our success either in the World Cup or at the Olympics or in the Under 20 events, all has come through Europe.

'Boys go to Europe at a tender age and they play under good conditions, the diet is good, there's health care and good policies and training systems, whereas in Africa there is not.

'For example, in Nigeria, how many decent facilities are there? The maximum is two, the Lagos Stadium, which is complete chaos, and there's one in Abuja, all for a country of over 100 million population.

'You need at least tens of thousands of stadiums of good quality, or at least good facilities in the cities.

'And you also need good coaches, people who can sit down with players and develop them.

'If you don't have that, you are always relying on others and that's the reason when you see our national teams, the head coaches are all Europeans except for Algeria [who are led by Rabah Saadane].

'When Africans themselves take care of their continent, then you will see Africa emerge and go out as a strong continent and be capable of winning a trophy.

'Maybe success will come from hosting and it might give others in the continent the chance to develop their game and we can grow up through that. But for the time being, there is a lot to do.'

The region taking the lead in development in Africa, believes Maradas, is the Arab-speaking northern strip, where nations such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have moved closer towards the professionalism seen across the Mediterranean in Europe.

This, he feels, will ultimately be the engine for change across the continent.

'Africa's development will come from the north, if you go to the likes of Egypt they play week in, week out and the people can play soccer and have a decent salary and live on playing it,' he says.

'You go to Morocco, it's the same. Algeria is now gaining ground. The government is building stadiums and has a plan for the youth. The Moroccans are doing that, too.

'There may be something that is holding us back in sub-Saharan African, but I can't put my finger on it. You find countries where there is good governance, but when it comes to working with the youth there is no blackboard or no chairs for the kids in the schools.

'Education is something global, that goes together with sport, music, culture and where you develop that you develop a national identity, you develop something positive.'

The World Cup may finally have arrived on African soil, but it seems the journey towards fulfilling the continent's potential remains a long and difficult one.