How did South Africa, Nigeria, Africa’s richest nations miss out?

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Nigeria’s squad (back L-R) defender Kenneth Omeruo, defender Elderson Uwa Echiejile, goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi, defender Leon Balogun, defender William Troost-Ekong, midfielder John Obi Mikel, (L-R) midfielder Victor Moses, midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, forward Oghenekaro Etebo, forward Alex Iwobi and forward Kelechi Iheanacho pose for a group picture ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup African zone group B qualifying football match between Nigeria and Algeria at the Akwa Ibom State Stadium in Uyo on November 12, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

Nigeria have won the U-17 World Cup a record five times and South Africa hosted the World Cup only seven years ago. How did they fall so far so quickly?

For the first time since Nelson Mandela broke the shackles of apartheid and brought South Africa back into the international sporting community, the Rainbow Nation and Nigeria, the 2013 champions, are both watching the Cup of Nations from home.

Their sporting pedigree, economic dominance – Nigeria and South Africa are the continent’s richest countries in terms of GDP – and combined population of 250 million football fans should make them among the favourites at this year’s tournament. After all, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski suggested in their book Soccernomics, “experience, population and income per capita explain just over a quarter of the variation in goal difference.” But South Africa, who submitted a bid to host the event, and Nigeria, who have won the tournament three times, are not taking part.

Football fans from China, England and the U.S. know all too well that economic clout does not necessarily translate into regional hegemony, but Nigeria and South Africa are different from other continental giants. They should be able to dominate.

South Africa were one of the first African nations to embrace football and they were one of the confederation’s four founding members in 1956 along with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. They became the first African country to host a World Cup in 2010 but the legacy of that tournament seems, in the words of Kickoff editor, Sibusiso Mjikeliso, “a bit of a falsehood”.

The infamous empty stadiums and underused infrastructure – principally a high-speed train connecting Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to the city centre – have become glaring symbols of the naivety that permeated the event.

People thought that building a functional public transport system and world-class football grounds would weave together the fabric of the city’s disparate townships with rainbow-coloured laces but all that glitters is not gold in Gauteng. The Soccer City stadium – a symbol of African modernity – remains embarrassingly underused and most low-income townships are nowhere near the Guatrain’s route.

So while many tourists were impressed by the first-world infrastructure that shuttled them between the country’s biggest airport and two of the host stadiums, the train has become a symbol of wastefulness and misallocation of public funds. The 95,000-capacity Soccer City stadium is not the only problem. With other monuments from 2010 attracting tiny crowds for South African Premier League matches, it’s clear that refurbishing existing stadiums would have been a wiser investment. Instead, these publicly funded grounds sit largely empty and the government’s deficit continues to rise.

On the pitch, it’s been all-downhill for the Bafana since the World Cup. They became the first host country to bow out in the group stage in 2010, failed to qualify for Brazil 2014, and then put in regrettable performances at the Cup of Nations in 2013 and 2015. When the Fifa scandal blew up last summer, allegations of vote-buying rocked the government and football association. Add in the stories about match-fixing in the run-up to the tournament and it’s hard not to see 2010 as one big charade.

Nigeria’s troubles are just as depressing. And this is also a country whose history is steeped in football. During the Second World War, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became Nigeria’s first president when they achieved independence, used football as a means of resistance, taking teams from Lagos on tour around the country to propagate anti-colonial sentiment. Azikiwe gave epic post-match speeches in which he pointed to the purported virtues of Great Britain’s greatest export as the ultimate sign of the Empire’s hypocrisy.

Long regarded as the African powerhouse, the Super Eagles won the Cup of Nations as recently as 2013 and have won more World Cup games than any other African country. Perhaps more impressive is their record five U-17 World Cup trophies, including back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2015. They’ve reached eight finals in all, three more than Brazil.

But Nigeria’s inability to refine their raw talents into a successful senior squad has made them world football’s greatest underachievers – a microcosm of an oil-rich state that seems to be perpetually on the brink of economic breakthrough.

Now in the depth of a deep recession that shows no signs of subsiding, the country’s economic troubles have trickled down into the football federation, whose inner workings are a constant distraction to the players and coaching staff.

Last summer, just as the Olympic squad prepared for their opening match in Rio, the federation’s funds were so low they could barely afford to fly the team to Brazil. Arriving just seven hours before kick-off, they beat Japan 5-4 and eventually reached the bronze-medal match, where they were the beneficiaries of an unlikely sponsorship.

Katsuya Takasu, a plastic surgeon from Tokyo, heard about their hardship and flew to Brazil to personally hand over a cheque for $390,000 to captain John Obi Mikel. And in September the federation announced it was so broke that it had to suspend player bonuses and seek financial assistance to fly the team to their World Cup qualifier in Zambia.

The additional four places on offer for African countries for the World Cup in 2026 comes as a timely windfall to fans desperate for a break but, in the meantime, the two federations need to get their houses in order.

• Culled from www.theguardian.com.

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