by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 30 2010)
Cameroun is the most successful African team in the history of the World Cup. Their run to the quarter-finals in 1990 captured some hearts, but eight years either side of that success they were victimised by poor refereeing – an African curse, according to some. The Indomitable Lions is far from the team to complain of poor refereeing, but Africans have been victimised by other means – cheating.
Algeria was robbed by as blatant a piece of match fixing as ever shamed football when West Germany and Austria played most of the match within ten yards of the halfway line to guarantee the result that suited themselves at the expense of the Desert Foxes in the World Cup in 1982. It resulted in final group stage matches kicking off at the same time. But the original injustice went unpunished. Both West Germany and Austria should have been sent home in disgrace and banned from at least the next World Cup for it..
A far less blatant decision affected the outcome of the same tournament nonetheless, benefiting European teams with success – the ultimate triumph – at Africa’s expense. The Indomitable Lions had a perfectly good goal ruled out against Italy – one that would have eliminated the eventual World champions in the first round. Instead it was Cameroun that went home without even the courtesy of an apology for a poor decision – one that could have affected the allocation of places at the next World Cup and perhaps others too.
France hosted the 1998 World Cup and the heroics of Roger Milla and his compatriots in Italy eight years earlier counted for nothing as a match against Chile raised the hackles of then coach Claude le Roy. The Frenchman remains convinced that something wrong happened in the tournament in his homeland. Morocco was also eliminated controversially in that tournament.
Nevertheless, former Camerounian goalkeeping great Joseph Antoine Bell has an unexpected opinion. “I think it’s disproportionate the way we Africans talk about that,” Bell told us exclusively. “Do you remember 1966 – the World Cup final in England. If it had been between England and an ‘African’ country everybody would have said ‘woah, they cheated the African.’ Nobody knows exactly if that ball was a goal.” Actually it shouldn’t have stood, but there were other controversial decisions in that match too that disadvantaged England that hardly anyone mentions.
Bell thinks that refereeing mistakes is just something players have to accept. “I think if you go to Africa you meet people talking about referees,” he says. “If you go to Europe you will meet people talking about referees. If you go Asia people are taking about referees and if you go to America people are talking about referees, so let us be very fair and understand that referees can make mistakes and that in a championship the mistake against you will always compensate the mistake for you, because you benefit from some mistakes and you also lose from some.”
A nice thought, but it doesn’t always even itself out. Italians object to South Korea reaching the semi-final at their expense even though Spain suffered far worse decisions in the last sixteen. They don’t mention the decisions that went their way against Australia four years later or twenty years before Asia’s World Cup when Cameroun was victimised by dubious refereeing that helped Italy progress to the knock out rounds and ultimately win the tournament.
They also ignore the interference of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini that benefited them in 1934 – one of the most outrageously corrupt tournaments of all time. Three times Italy has benefited from dubious decisions and gone on to win the tournament, yet they complain about South Korea reaching a semi-final with the aid of refereeing decisions – yes poor ones – that went against them.
A European country may have won those tournaments anyway, but that misses the point. Europe is rewarded for performances at the World Cup and at least two of them were at the expense of other confederations, whose representation may have increased but for those decisions. Europeans know that they will have a better chance of returning to the World Cup too. Africa has to make do with five places, which Europe gets thirteen. Consequently, they have a far better chance of doing well and being rewarded with extra places.
It took forty years for the continent to get just one place in the World Cup finals. “You must see how Africa has progressed” another Camerounian goalkeeping legend, Thomas Nkono told us. “In the beginning we started with teams fighting to have another participate.” It took four decades and a boycott of 1966 to make the point. Gradually, Africa was given more places, but the allocation remains fundamentally unfair even now.
Africa has to perform to win more places, but it is denied an equal opportunity. They rarely get to play teams ranked higher and the number of places in the tournament denies them the chance to gain experience. The best team in Africa has only been to the World Cup once on merit and that was twenty years ago.
“All depends on the results of the teams of Africa to go to FIFA and have some argument to have another place – support another place for the teams of Africa,” said Nkono. “If we don’t have the results we can’t have the power to go back to them.”
But why not? Both Europe and South America didn’t earn their places on results originally and what performance shows that CONCACAF members deserve their allocation of World Cup places? Their best performance was in 1930 – a semi-final appearance in an invitation only tournament. What has CONCACAF done since to deserve its allocation compared to Africa?
Nevertheless, Bell agrees with Nkono. “I’m not sure whether Africa deserves more than the rest of the world, because there is something you should remember,” says Bell. “If you claim to have more representatives then you should show your results. I’m not sure whether we are getting better results than the others. Don’t forget South America wins the World Cup and they’ve won it so many times, so maybe they deserve more countries than Africa that has never won it.”
But they have had more opportunities too and disproportionately so. The same applies to Europe, but Bell is having none of it. “You know by talking like people who are considering themselves as a bit smaller or weaker, we always make the mistake not to be equal with the rest of the world,” he says. “Personally, I want to be treated like other people with exactly the same measure. I don’t want any favours.”