WAKRAH, Qatar — Africa-wise, this World Cup looked bleak around the outset. The Nov. 8 injury to the best player among the 1.2 billion Africans, Sadio Mane of Senegal and Bayern Munich, displayed fate’s capacity for meanness. The five African sides went 0-3-2 in their opening matches, with the draws both goalless. A scenario of a knockout stage lacking any African team for the second consecutive World Cup looked plausible.
The World Cup feels richer with African teams back in round of 16
Yeah, but how the quintet did rebound, and the 2022 World Cup did luck out and almost luck out more. The five went 3-1-1 in their second matches and 4-1 in their thirds. They brought about the only World Cup other than Brazil 2014 in which two African sides grace the final 16, and they spent some moments Friday night with Ghana and Cameroon positioned to add a record third or even fourth.
“Four days ago,” Senegal Manager Aliou Cisse said at a news conference Tuesday after qualifying, “we were up against a brick wall.”
Now here go the 10th and 11th teams in African World Cup history to play on to the knockout bracket, the World Cup graced with Senegal’s fortitude after Mane’s injury and Morocco’s defense cheered by its giant crowd. Here go Senegal against England on Sunday and Morocco against Spain on Tuesday. There go the streets and cafes of Dakar and Pikine and Marrakesh and Casablanca and Fez, primed for untold bustle. And off go the departed African teams who packed good memories, as long as one does not include the ridiculous penalty Cristiano Ronaldo coaxed for Portugal in the 3-2 opening win over Ghana. Tunisia beat France. Cameroon beat Brazil.
“My players should be congratulated,” Cameroon Manager Rigobert Song said Friday night at a news conference after the 1-0 gem over Brazil mined on Jerome Ngom Mbekeli’s seeing-eye cross to Vincent Aboubakar’s split-second header in the second minute of stoppage time. “They have shown that they should have done better in the two games before this. We gradually improved, and it’s a real shame that we are going home now.”
The World Cup is left with the Lions of Teranga (Senegal) and the Atlas Lions (Morocco), but not the Black Stars (Ghana), Indomitable Lions (Cameroon) and Carthage Eagles (Tunisia), meaning it feels both richer and bereft.
“It’s certainly an inspiration,” outgoing Ghana manager Otto Addo said Thursday in a news conference before the Black Stars’ 2-0 closing loss to Uruguay on Friday. “First, I’m happy for Senegal. It’s very, very important. As you all know, Africa is, yes, it is an exploited continent. A lot of things have gone wrong in history and worked against us.”
That history cast Mexico 1986 as a breakthrough. It seems almost a whisper by now (except in Morocco!) because of two statistics: Morocco’s mind-bending 3-1 upset of Portugal to win Group F drew just 28,000 fans outside Guadalajara, and its creditable 1-0 loss to West Germany in the round of 16 drew 22,000 in Monterrey.
“Never in the history of world soccer has a Third World or African team come in first in its group,” the Brazilian Morocco manager José Faria said at the time, “… and this was a strong group [with England, Poland and Portugal]. Lots of people expected us to lose, and lots of people lost on the lottery. We could go home now. It’s as if we’ve won the world championship already.”
They went home only after West Germany’s Lothar Matthäus scored on a free kick from 30 yards out in the 88th minute. The three African teams to reach World Cup quarterfinals wound up knowing even harsher bummers of narrowness.
Cameroon in 1990 lost to England after leading 2-1 before Gary Lineker scored on a penalty in the 83rd minute and scored on another penalty in the 105th. Senegal in 2002, with its monster upset of defending champion France on a goal by Papa Bouba Diop, lost to Turkey, 1-0, on a goal by Ilhan Mansiz in the 94th minute. Ghana, which kicked out the United States in both 2006 (group stage) and 2010 (round of 16), lost that quarterfinal in 2010 in a manner wreaking decades of cringes: on penalty kicks after the rewarding of Luis Suarez’s blatant cheating for Uruguay with a deliberate hand ball at the end of extra time, followed by a Ghana missed penalty.
“This is football,” Addo was saying Friday night, after his team missed an early penalty and grew perhaps addled enough to yield two goals quickly thereafter. “Sometimes football is beautiful, sometimes really ugly, and today for us was ugly.”
His Black Stars, who in 2010 became the second African nation (after Nigeria) to reach a second knockout stage, might seethe from here over the penalty rich in Ronaldo acting, which Addo wound up labeling “a gift.” Addo began his remarks Friday night by listing all the Ghanaian players who had aided the squad but had not made the World Cup roster, and then all of the players who might have made the World Cup roster but couldn’t because of injury. “Sometimes,” he said of his newly budding squad, “it’s just one meter left, and one meter right, and a little better anticipation.”
First, the Senegalese pushed through as an exemplar of overcoming severe last-minute inconvenience. They did it with a sense of history, too, as Kalidou Koulibaly scored the winning goal in the 2-1 clincher over Ecuador in the 70th minute while wearing a No. 19 armband honoring the late Diop, who died two years ago at age 42. “We wanted to make him proud,” Koulibaly said at the news conference afterward. “We wanted to give homage to him. He was the one who made me dream when I was a boy. This was something we weren’t going to let slip.”
And then here in another Group F, 36 years after that previous Group F, Morocco built another first-place finish off a draw with Croatia, a win over Canada and, in between, a 2-0 win over Belgium amid extraordinary noise. Its defense did not concede a goal here until it already had a 2-0 lead on Canada in the closing match. “Congratulations to the players who entered history, deservedly,” said Walid Regragui, himself a former defender for Morocco, and a manager only since late summer. He reckoned the Moroccan people ought to kiss the head of defender Achraf Hakimi, who plays for starry Paris Saint-Germain.
He kidded, but some might comply anyway.
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The knockout stage continued at the World Cup on Saturday with Argentina beating Australia, 2-1, in the round of 16. Argentina, featuring global star Lionel Messi in what is probably his final World Cup, is among the favorites to win the tournament and managed to finish first in Group C and move on to the quarterfinals despite a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its first game.
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The Netherlands, winners of Group A, had finished the group stage without a loss, conceding just a single goal. Its winning streak continues, while the U.S. run is over.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Today’s WorldView: Ishaan Tharoor, The Post’s foreign desk columnist, chronicles his week at the World Cup in Qatar.