RIO DE JANEIRO — Somehow, amid the chaos, Africa has made history at this World Cup.
Look past the bonus disputes and strike threats, and a plane apparently landing in Brazil with bundles of cash to keep an unhappy squad playing, and it’s notable that Africa has two teams in the last 16. That, by African standards, is a rich return.
Nigeria and Algeria will represent the continent in the second round in Brazil. It might even have been three teams if not for a hotly-disputed penalty in the dying seconds of the group stage that denied Ivory Coast progress. Never before has more than one African nation gone through at one World Cup.
Africans are always searching for signs that their continent is truly ready to be a regular force in global football. It’s difficult to tell if this is really one of them. Because while Africa is getting better organized on the field, it seems to be getting much worse off it.
Of the five African teams in Brazil – Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon – three of them have had their World Cup campaigns seriously affected by pay problems.
“It is sad that we end up with such a story,” FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke on Friday said about Ghana’s players threatening to boycott a match this week over unpaid bonuses.
Ghana, a quarterfinalist in 2010, had to go as far as flying hard cash in on a plane to keep the players committed to the decisive group game against Portugal. Cameroon’s squad had refused to travel to Brazil until their demands for better bonuses were met. African champion Nigeria, days from its first knockout game at the World Cup since 1998, canceled a training session on Thursday to talk about money.
The pay is seriously distracting from the play.
The problem is not new to African teams – it happened with Togo at the World Cup in 2006 – but it’s happening more often now, often enough for FIFA to take notice. At the core of it is a lack of trust between players and their national federations that what is promised to players before a World Cup is actually delivered after it.
For Ghana’s players, stars of the last tournament in South Africa, it became a case of ‘show me the money’ in Brazil.
FIFA was on the brink of giving Ghana an advance on its $8 million in prize money to pay its players their agreed appearance fees before the West Africans said they found another last-minute solution involving a chartered plane and a lot of cash from back home.
FIFA will look at ways of solving this problem ahead of the World Cup from now on, Valcke said.
“What we have to do for future World Cups is to make (sure) that firstly there is an agreement between the players and their national associations for the payments of bonuses,” he said.
Maybe it is time for FIFA to intervene because away from the cash chaos, African teams, with the exception of Cameroon, have been competitive at this World Cup.
Nigeria qualified and was impressive in the way it kept coming back at Argentina, one of the favorites, in a narrow 3-2 loss. Algeria’s attacking style has drawn praise and found reward with the North Africans reaching the second round for the first time. Ivory Coast was unlucky to lose to Greece via that contentious late penalty. And Ghana completely unsettled Germany with its pace and power in a 2-2 draw before money got in the way ahead of the Portugal game.
Other countries see plenty of evidence of Africa’s on-field progress.
France is expecting a stern test from Nigeria when they meet in the knockout stage on Monday as African teams add tactical know-how to their natural talents.
“African teams have always had physical impact and speed,” France midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin said. “Over the last few years they’ve improved tactically.” Defender Bacary Sagna said African teams “are evolving as every team does. They’re learning an awful lot.”
But are they taking heed of other lessons? Last year, Nigeria’s football federation was severely criticized at home and an investigation was opened after the squad arrived days late in Brazil for the Confederations Cup because players were arguing with officials over pay.
Early on Thursday Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo said in a statement meant to calm fears of similar problems at the World Cup: “We have reached this stage of the tournament, which is a special privilege, and we cannot afford to let the whole of Africa and especially Nigeria down. So please … allow us to focus on our football and nothing else.”
And yet hours later he and his squad were locked in a meeting talking about money when they should have been on a training field preparing for Nigeria’s first knockout game at a World Cup in 16 years.