The marvels from Africa

The muscular wonders from the AFRICAN CONTINENT have set every World Cup alight with free-flowing football, instinctive moves and audacious goals, writes NANDAKUMAR MARAR.

African football can best be described as a vibrant combination of explosive grace, natural athleticism and awesome physical strength. Individually and as a group, these players from an amazing continent are popularising the game in their own unique ways, pulling fans to stadiums and viewers to television.

However, revulsion in place of reverence towards these elite players in European football raises fears of racism threatening to rear its ugly head at World Cup 2006. The monkey cries, mocking Samuel Eto'o, echoing in French stadiums and racist abuse targeted at other footballers of African origin elsewhere in European leagues is a disturbing development.

FIFA's warnings to punish teams for fans' negative behaviour in Germany are an indication of how deep-rooted this problem is. The taunts aimed at one of Cameroon's proud sons come at a time when these naturally-blessed players from the Dark Continent deserve to be applauded for the delight they bring to the game at all levels, from the World Cup downwards.

Football's summit in Germany is essentially a congregation to celebrate achievements of those who bring joy to the game. African footballers have pure passion and an acquired sophistication, as if born to play the sport. The World Cup is their stage, and new faces and new teams will emerge for the world to marvel at.

Cameroon's exit from the list of five African qualifiers will deprive Eto'o of an opportunity to showcase his talent honed at Barcelona in the Spanish Liga. Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola, Ghana and Tunisia earned the honour of playing in the World Cup this year, giving European league stars such as Chelsea's Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana) and Arsenal's Koko Toure (Ivory Coast) a platform to display their skills.

The muscular wonders from the Dark Continent have set every World Cup alight with free-flowing football, instinctive moves and audacious goals. Roger Milla's Cameroon ambushed Argentina in the Italia `90 opener en route to becoming the first African nation to enter the quarterfinal phase. Senegal continued the awesome African tradition by stunning the defending champion France in the World Cup 2002 opener and El Hadji Diouf's maverick runs at defences took the debutants into the last eight against all expectations.

Nigeria's breathtaking potential was on show in the 1998 World Cup when the African powerhouse topped the group, ahead of Spain, Paraguay and Bulgaria.

The performances of the African teams at the World Cup were a revelation for the people world over because their players attained world standards far away from the glare of media and television. Competitions such as the African Champions Cup (between clubs) and African Nations Cup (between countries) infused confidence in these players with sculpted bodies and master brains.

Talent and technique, they were born with. But the virtues of teamwork and temperament were drilled into them by foreign coaches such as Clemens Westerhoff of the Netherlands, Bora Milutinovic of Yugoslavia, in charge of Nigeria, and Frenchman Bruno Metsu, handling Senegal. Great players like Cameroon's Roger Milla, Patrick Mboma, Nigeria's Daniel Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini or Senegal's Aliou Cisse also made an impact.

The rhythm of football comes naturally to them, like dance and music. The African nations, where talent is nurtured young, attain world standards at junior and youth levels, attracting European clubs in pursuit of outstanding players.

Nicknamed the Super Eagles, Nigeria scored on the international arena in age group and youth tournaments before making a mark in the World Cup. Nigeria had a giant awakening in 1980 when it won the African Nations Cup, its junior teams were crowned the FIFA World U-16 (1985) and the FIFA World U-17 (1993) champions, before the national team qualified for USA '94.

Two years later, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Nigeria blunted Brazil in the final for the men's football gold medal. Many Nigerian players from the USA '94 squad, who impressed against star-studded Italy and later on at the Atlanta Olympics, became hot property in inter-club transfers. Rashidi Yekini played in Portugal (Vitoria Setubal), Greece (Olympiakos), Spain (Sporting Gijon), Switzerland (FC Zurich). He won an Olympic men's football gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games before returning to World Cup in 1998 in France as a seasoned, spectacular striker.

African flair merged with European expertise to create quality performers like Nwanko Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha, but pre-World Cup controversies between players and the national federations diluted the efforts of foreign coaches to create a focussed, united group of players.

Milutinovic and Westerhoff were the two outsiders who had reasonable success in bringing to the Nigerian World Cup squad a sense of discipline, steering clear of ethnic pressures.

Unfortunately though, individual brilliance did not translate into team success for a nation ranked fifth in the world in 1994.

Nigeria had depth of talent and technical acumen to progress beyond Senegal or Cameroon in World Cup play, but dispute over payments and lack of opportunities at home induced the players to perform with an eye on impressing European club coaches and talent scouts.

Senegal's breakthrough is based on its French connection, tapped by administrators like Malick Sy and Italian Aldo Gentina who convinced French club AS Monaco to support a football academy. Centre Aldo Gentina won a youth tournament in France, ahead of teams from Arsenal and Barcelona. Five players from the Dakar-based academy graduated to the World Cup squad, while other young Senegalese were absorbed by the French clubs.

El Hadji Diouf, for instance, went to Lens as a precocious 14-year-old, joined Sochaux at 15 andrefused offers to represent the France U-21 squad. The 2002 World Cup sensation in Korea/Japan then signed to play for Liverpool in the English Premier League.

Coach Bruno Metsu, persuaded to take over as the Senegal coach after stints in French lower divisions, assembled a group of Senegal-born players competing in the French league into a confident, cohesive unit. This former French colony, which had a football tradition, qualified for the African Nations Cup semifinal in 1990 and advanced to the final in 2002 under the new coach, whose mature man-management skills brought out the best in the players. Senegal's dynamic displays in Korea/Japan owe a lot to the freedom given to players by Metsu.

The world astounded by Cameroon's polished passing and incredible ball and body skills didn't know that the Indomitable Lions, introduced to the game by the Germans and later the French, were building on club honours in the African Champions Cup for five years between 1965-1980 before qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The self-belief gained from duels against the world's best helped the nation win the African Nations Cup in 1984 and 1988. So when Italia `90 arrived, Milla and his marauders were ready. The four goals he scored in the event coming on as a substitute, two against Colombia in extra-time, sent Cameroon into the quarters.

He celebrated each strike with a Makossa dance around the corner flag as the entire African continent exploded with joy at the 38-year-old veteran's super show of pace, control and striking prowess. Four years later at 42 years, he became the oldest goal scorer in World Cup football at USA '94. Considered a late bloomer as striker, Milla was in fact a child prodigy, nicknamed `Pele' for barefoot brilliance and eye for goal. At 13, he was snapped up by club Eclair de Douala. Five years later, he won league honours with Leopard de Douala en route to the national squad via Tonnerree Club de Yaounde.

Awarded the African Golden Ball in 1976, he ended up in the reserves with French clubs Valenciennes and Monaco, struggled at Bastia before the promoted second division side Saint Etienne gave him space as a forward. Later, Montpellier impressed him so much that he signed up on its coaching staff after his playing career ended.

Milla's larger-than-life presence, the corner flag dance and amazing resilience in body and spirit are remembered each time the African teams create and celebrate goals. The absence of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal from Germany 2006, ironically, offers a glimpse of the rich football talent in the African Continent waiting to be discovered. Ivory Coast, coached by Frenchman Henri Michel and boasting established European club professionals, is expected to keep Africa's flag flying.

Tunisia, possessing similar depth of foreign-based pros and coached by Roger Lemerre, another ex-France coach, is a threat along with Ghana, the two-time World Youth Cup finalist.

African football, known to delight and despair at the same time, could come of age in Germany.