Rising out of the sand near a residential suburb of Dakar, the Demba Diop Stadium was beginning to fill up. Thousands of Senegalese fans sporting green, red and yellow national football shirts waited patiently in two orderly lines, while a band played West African tunes and groups of young boys sold bags of drinking water in the scorching spring heat. Less than two hours later, after enjoying their country's thrilling 6-1 victory over Liberia, the fans poured out of the stadium with an air of optimism. After all, the Lions of Teranga, as the Senegalese team is known, seemed headed to another World Cup finals.
That was March 2005, however. And like many another supposed African powerhouse before it, Senegal subsequently crumbled and failed to qualify for Germany. Every four years an African squad surprises the traditional powers and wins hearts around the world--Cameroon in 1990, Nigeria in 1994, Senegal in 2002. More and more players like Ghana's Michael Essien and the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba are now linchpins on European club teams. The continent is the future of football, we are repeatedly told: South Africa will host the next World Cup, the continent's first, in 2010. And yet no consistent contender has emerged from the region. Out of this year's Cup teams--Angola, Tunisia, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast--only Tunisia qualified in 2002. "African football is not developing in the slightest," says football expert Geoff Pearson.
The reasons for Africa's failure to live up to expectations are simple--"The problems that face African football are the problems that face Africa," says Pearson. Corruption is rampant, and despite new investment, football infrastructure--from stadiums to computer databases--remains woefully underdeveloped. The flight of stars--football's equivalent of the brain drain--is perhaps the most damaging blow. European scouts now snap up players before they've had a chance to establish themselves in Africa; while the stars themselves have benefited immensely from competing against the world's best, the quality of the teams they've left behind has dropped precipitously. Some stars, like South Africa's Quinton Fortune and Benni McCarthy, have even started putting club before country, refusing to play for their national teams in World Cup qualifiers.
Due to this lack of depth and stability at home, Africa simply hasn't been able to produce national teams capable of consistent play from one tournament to the next, or even through one month long World Cup. "Their play staggers a bit drunkenly from game to game," says Rogan Taylor, director of the University of Liverpool's Football Industry Group. In 1977, Pelé confidently declared that an African nation would win the World Cup by the end of the millennium. When that failed to happen, he pushed the deadline forward to 2010. One wonders if even that is too soon for Africa's future to arrive.