Thursday, Jun. 24, 2010

What Ever Happened to Home-Field Advantage?

Behind the enormous pressure on South Africa to deliver the stadiums, transport systems and accommodations for the World Cup was a secondary anticipation, shared by all the African teams in the tournament — that they were going to punch above their weight. The hope was expressed by no less a personage than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has been both a delighted and delightful cheerleader for the Cup and his nation's team, affectionately known as Bafana Bafana. "We were not only ready to host the World Cup as far as infrastructure was concerned but also in terms of our self-belief and self-esteem as a nation," said the Nobel laureate in an interview. Looking ahead to South Africa's third group game with France, he predicted "a three- or four-nil victory."

He was right about the win, if not the score. South Africa inflicted a 2-1 defeat on a French team beset with internal strife. But that result, along with a draw with Mexico and a loss to Uruguay, was not enough for the team to advance to the round of 16. South Africa now has the dubious distinction of being the only World Cup host to fail to reach the knockout stage. For the millions of home fans, it is hardly a consolation that the same fate befell higher-rated African teams such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria and — barring a miracle after we went to press — Côte d'Ivoire. Only Ghana's Black Stars survived the first round.

There is no home-continent advantage, not even in a World Cup as exotic as this one has become, from the leaf-blower-in-your-ear vuvuzelas that provide unremitting background noise to games being staged in remote cities like Rustenburg, which leave no mistake that the Cup is being held in a developing nation. On the field, though, African teams have found that geography matters little to their opponents. The continent's hopes have been dashed. "I'm feeling so bad for Nigeria," said Vincent Enyeama, that team's goalkeeper, after a 2-2 draw with South Korea that eliminated the Super Eagles. "We let the continent down. I'm sorry. What could I say? We are at fault."

At fault for what, exactly? For not living up to the exalted expectations? Africa has been on the cusp for a long time. Indeed, before the 1994 World Cup, England legend Bobby Charlton told me that an African team would win the title within a decade. Pele predicted that the Jules Rimet trophy would be in African hands before the end of the century. When the Nigerians reached the quarterfinals in '94, those predictions seemed prophetic. But in the ensuing years, a number of circumstances — on and off the field of play — conspired to make Africa's nations even less likely to excel.

Nigeria is a prime example. The exploitation of oil has destabilized the country — the so-called resource curse — and turned Nigeria's national soccer team into a political football as well. It has had dozens of new coaches and officials and no consistency in developing its soccer program, regardless of the talent available. Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal have had similar difficulties.

These haven't stopped individual African players from joining the ranks of the best in the sport. Consider Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, who this spring won the European Champions League, the Serie A scudetto and the Italian league cup. But with his club, Inter Milan, he could count on a host of international stars alongside him to pick him up if he had a bad day. Cameroon's bench isn't that deep: after losing its first two games (the second to Denmark, despite an Eto'o goal), it became the first team to be eliminated from the competition. Côte d'Ivoire's striker Didier Drogba led his club team, Chelsea, to the league title in England's Premiership and also won the FA Cup. Beyond being an amazing presence on the soccer pitch, he is an extraordinary leader. In the middle of a civil war in his home country, he convinced fighting factions to put down their guns and rally around the national team instead. But on the field, not even Drogba can carry a team on his back, especially not with a broken arm, sustained during a warm-up match.

Although Côte d'Ivoire drew 0-0 against a tough Portugal squad in the "group of death" in its first match, any objective analysis would have shown that the Ivorians were going to do poorly. How could they not? Their star player was injured, and their coach, Sven Göran Eriksson, was appointed only days before the Cup began. What other team in those circumstances would be labeled a possible semifinalist, as the Ivorians have been? "Our fate's no longer in our hands," said Drogba after a 3-1 loss to Brazil in which his Eléphants were soundly beaten. "But I'm not sad, just a little disappointed. Our team has made progress since the last World Cup, but we could have been a bit more ambitious."

Nigeria suffered the same case of hype, despite a team that was mediocre by recent standards. Its coach, Lars Lagerback, had been handed the assignment of reaching the semifinals. "How can you give a mandate to a man to get to the semifinals when you are ranked 20th [in the world]?" asked former England international John Barnes on South African television.

South Africa is the lowest-ranked team to ever host a World Cup. But given the incredible support and enthusiasm of its people, inflated hopes were to be expected. And the team's first goal in the World Cup was a thing of beauty, a flowing move forward, a perfect pass to Siphiwe Tshabalala, followed by his brilliant left-footed shot into Mexico's goal. Yet opponents Mexico and Uruguay would score the next four goals, giving the Bafana Bafana a draw and a loss in its first two games, leaving the team too far behind to make up with that win against the French. Tactically, the South Africans did a bad job of game management. Realistically, they simply didn't have the talent — only three of the first team play in Europe, which is the finishing school for Africa's top talent. "Has it been good enough?" asked television commentator Andre Arendse, a former goaltender for South Africa. "Not by a mile."

Ironically, there's been some criticism that African teams are not African enough. The best players move to Europe at an early age, where, under the tutelage of disciplinarian European coaches, the spirited, innovative, if a bit chaotic style of play is drummed out of them. When an Eto'o or a Drogba plays for the national team, goes the argument, they are simply out of sync with home-based players. At the same time, a succession of European coaches has failed to impose discipline on African sides. "They need to improve their tactical awareness," says Portugal's assistant coach Dan Gaspar, who has also been on the South African coaching staff. "There are too many mental time-outs as a result of poor concentration. They are tactically naive and lose team shape. Individually, they can cope, learn and grow overseas. But when they collectively gather, they are still fragile." Even so, Gaspar believes African success is in the near future. "They are not far from sorting things out," he says. "And when they do, the world of soccer had better be prepared for a new king."

In the here and now, with the Bafana Bafana eliminated, some organizers worried that the incredible spirit that has accompanied this Cup would diminish; they're encouraging home fans to pick any other team and root for them. But in truth, a loss of fervor doesn't seem likely. South Africans are simply too thrilled with the whole event to stop the party now. And it's not likely that Archbishop Tutu is going to let them either.