No African soccer team has ever reached the World Cup semi-finals. For the 2018 tournament in Russia, five strong teams could change that. But it's not going to be an easy feat.
Ghana almost made it in 2010 in South Africa. The West African country was close to fulfilling the dream of Africans to finally advance to World Cup semi-finals. The game had already entered extra time when Ghana's Stephen Appiah kicked the ball towards Uruguay's goal. Luis Suarez blocked it at the goal line, but Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball towards the goal.
The ball was not caught by Uruguay's goalkeeper but by Suarez, who used his hands to stop the ball. Suarez was subsequently given a red card; Ghana's Asamoah Gyan failed to score penalty. The following penalty shootout was then won by Uruguay, thus ending Ghana's chances to reach semi-finals.
Two other African teams have so far reached quarter-finals: Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002. Both lost during extra time.
Hopes are high for 2018: Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia all qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It's the sixth time Nigeria is participating in the tournament, which makes the Super Eagles a regular World Cup player, only missing out on one tournament since 1994.
While drawing a difficult qualifying group, the Super Eagles around captain John Obi Mikel (30) and midfielder Victor Moses (26) were able to defeat Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria.
But due to poor performance in preceding years, Nigeria - which is ranked number 50 on the list of international teams - was placed in a weaker pot at the draw held in Russia, and ended up in a group with Croatia, Island and Argentina.
Nigeria has played against Argentina four times during previous World Cups, and lost every single game. German trainer Gernot Rohr has said he aims to at least "give a good performance and show high morale."
But a 4:2 victory in a friendly match against Argentina in November has left the Super Eagles longing for more.
In the last qualifying round, the Atlas Lions led by captain Mehdi Benatia (30) won every match without conceding a goal, to the chagrin of Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. The man behind these brilliant tactics was French trainer Herve Renard, who has won the Africa Cup twice: with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015.
Morocco was seeded with Spain, European Championship winner Portugal and Iran in the World Cup draw for 2018.
Volker Finke, a former trainer of the German Bundesliga, told DW that Morocco was "well organized." Finke, who used to train Cameroon until 2015, has faced Renard's Ivory Coast three times.
He said Morocco was capable of "annoying the two powerhouses" Spain and Portugal in the tournament, but expects them to advance to the next round.
"In the end quality will win the day. And that quality is overpowering, no matter how well you organize the defense," he said.
Egypt is the most successful national team on the African continent, having won the Africa Cup of Nations multiple times. It's the third time for the North African country to participate in the World Cup; the last time Egypt played in 1990.
The Pharaohs beat Uganda, Ghana and the Republic of Congo to qualify for Russia. They only scored eight goals in six games. Trainer Hector Cuper from Argentina has been heavily criticized for his defensive game, but was vindicated by success: his team won 20 out of 30 games.
And compared to other African teams, the Pharaohs drew a less difficult lot, having been seeded with host Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.
"In view of their opponents, the team has the best starting position," Finke told DW. "Good technique, physically powerful, confident," he added.
The team's star is Mohamed Salah (25), who plays for FC Liverpool. If he manages to score a goal, the Pharaohs might make it to the second round for the first time ever.
Tunisia's Carthage Eagles
Tunisia too has not yet been able to survive the groups' stage, in spite of participating in five World Cups. The Carthage Eagles qualified without losing a single game. But their opponents - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea - were not the strongest competition. Defeating Belgium, England and Panama will be more difficult.
"The key to reaching the second stage is the match against England," trainer Nabil Maaloul said. The Tunisian has recruited most of his players from the national league, contrary to other African teams.
Betting agencies consider Tunisia to be among the biggest outsiders of the tournament. They put the odds of the Carthage Eagles winning the World Cup at between 1:500 and 1:751.
The team is still adding players to its roster. The Tunisian football association recently invited Rani Khedira (23), the younger brother of German national player Sami Khedira (30) to join the Eagles in Russia.
Senegal's Lions of Teranga
Senegal ranks 23 on the FIFA world ranking, making it the highest ranked of all African teams. Bookmakers are offering bettors on Senegal odds between 1:126 and 1:151.
This is only the second time for Senegal to play in a World Cup. In 2002, during the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Aliou Cisse led the team as captain. Today he serves as their trainer.
The Lions qualified by defeating South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde.
The draw placed them in a balanced group, together with Poland, Columbia and Japan. The team around star player Sadio Mane (25), also from Liverpool, has a good chance of reaching the next stage - the round of 16.
The usual African problems?
Volker Finke does not believe an African team will "make it very far" in the 2018 World Cup. It has less to do with sports and more with organization, infrastructure and lack of transparency, he said. After having qualified for a championship, associations would start fighting over big budgets, he told DW.
Suddenly, the doors in the team's hotel are locked, because the bills have not been paid; the team's bus won't come to pick up players, because there is allegedly no money for fuel; or the flight will be delayed, because rewards for players are still being negotiated.
That's why teams of the north are usually stronger, Finke said. "Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast clearly have better players than the North Africans. But the North Africans are more organized and structured, for instance when it comes to work within the associations or organizing training camps," he said.
The job of the trainer was different in Africa, where football associations have protégés among the players, he added. When working in Cameroon, Finke said he was "50 percent diplomat and 50 percent trainer."
In order to be successful, it's "important to have a team that acts as a team. And you need the support of the football association, when you decide to not invite certain players," Finke told DW.
Russia qualified for the tournament automatically as hosts and will be making their 11th appearance at a World Cup. They failed to progress from their group during the Confederations Cup in the summer, losing to Portugal and Mexico, although they did beat New Zealand. Their most recent match saw them defeat South Korea 4-2 in a friendly in Moscow on Saturday.
Brazil have never failed to qualify for a World Cup in 21 attempts and secured top spot in South American qualification thanks to Neymar (pictured) and co. They have also won the World Cup five times – more than any other nation - and their attack will be spearheaded by the Paris Saint-Germain superstar as they aim to claim an unprecedented sixth.
The 2010 World Cup winners and 2008 and 2012 European Champions booked their ticket to Russia with a game to spare thanks to a 3-0 victory over Albania. Spain managed to rack up a goal difference of +33 in qualifying and are seen by many as being among the favourites in Russia.
Euro 2016 finalists France have no shortage of star power and comfortably topped the same Group A that the Netherlands failed to survive. Joachim Löw recently called the French an obvious rival as Germany seek to defend their title. Anyone who remembers Manuel Neuer's 2014 quarterfinal heroics in a 1-0 win would be hard pressed to argue.
Despite a rocky road to qualification, Cristiano Ronaldo will go to the ball in Russia. Portugal sealed an automatic spot at Switzerland's expense after beating their Group B counterparts 2-0. Aged 32, it's conceivable that Russia could be Ronaldo's last World Cup, after winning Euro 2016 with his country.
England's Euro 2016 vanquishers booked their spot to a second consecutive major international tournament. So get ready for more viking clapping and cheering from the stands in Russia. Gylfi Sigurdsson, left, remains Iceland's most technically gifted player, but he has a competent crew backing him up. Iceland won Group I outright, leaving Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in their wake.
Serbia topped Group D with 21 points, beating Georgia in the decisive final group game to book a World Cup return following their 2010 appearance. This prompted a giant team celebration, and tears from star midfielder Nemanja Matic of Manchester United.
The Super Eagles became the first African side to qualify after a strike from Alex Iwobi (pictured) against Zambia ensured they topped Group B. The Arsenal man is one of six Premier League players in the current squad but, despite winning it in 2013, Nigeria have failed to qualify for the last two African Cup of Nations tournaments. Russia will be their seventh finals appearance.
Japan qualified for the World Cup in Russia by topping Group B in Asia ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia. It will only be their sixth appearance at the finals where they have never progressed beyond the last 16, going out at that stage in 2002 and 2010. In Shinji Kagawa, Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto, there is plenty of Bundesliga interest.
A serene stroll through a straightforward qualifying group capped a strong 2017 for the reigning champions. Wins at the Confederations Cup and under-21 Euros showed the depth in the German game and they will enter the tournament among the favorites once again. Timo Werner looks like the answer to the longstanding striker issue, while there are a wealth of options elsewhere.
A dramatic injury time header from Kendall Watson secured a fourth qualification out of the last five for Costa Rica. The Central American nation will look back fondly on a pair of convincing wins over the United States of America (4-0 and 2-0) that helped them finish second, behind Mexico. Russia will be their fifth finals appearance, with a quarterfinal in 2014 their best showing.
Mexico have qualified for their 16th World Cup, coming top of the CONCACAF qualification ahead of Costa Rica. The Mexicans reached the quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986. They are likely to be reliant on former Bayer Leverkusen frontman Chicharito (front), who now plies his goal-poaching trade in the Premier League, once again.
The winners of Asian Group A were the third team to book their ticket to Russia, after Brazil and the hosts. Under the stewardship of former Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz (center), the team set a new qualifying record when they went 12 games without conceding a goal before a 2-2 draw against Syria in their final match. This will be their fifth World Cup.
Despite an unbeaten record in World Cup qualifiers that stretches back eight years and 38 games, all is not rosy in England’s garden. A woeful Euro 2016, followed by the one-game reign of Sam Allardyce has left many disillusioned. But the 1966 winners are there for the a 5th consecutive tournament and in Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane (pictured) and Raheem Sterling, they have some talented forwards.
A strong home record helped the Green Falcons through to a fifth World Cup. Despite that, former Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza recently took over from Dutchman Bert van Marwijk just days after their qualification was sealed with a 1-0 home win over Japan. Germany fans will have happy memories of the Saudis at the World Cup – they beat them 8-0 in their opening game of the 2002 tournament.
Another early qualifier, South Korea reached their 10th global showpiece in somewhat underwhelming fashion, with a 0-0 draw in Uzbekistan. The home semifinalists in 2002 labored a little in qualifying, losing 3 of their 10 games and scoring just 11 goals. With a largely Asian-based squad, South Korea don’t have the stars of previous years but Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is a threat.
With a wealth of attacking talent including Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Dries Mertens (left), Belgium stormed their way through group G with two games to spare. After making the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup - their best ever showing - the Red Devils disappointed at Euro 2016, tamely exiting to Wales in the last eight. More will be expected of them in Russia.
Egypt have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, and they couldn't have left it any later against Congo. The Pharaohs needed victory in Alexandria and an injury-time penalty by Mo Salah was effectively the last kick of the game, ensuring a 2-1 win and triggering wild scenes of celebration on the field and in the country's capital, Cairo.
Poland sealed their first World Cup berth since 2006 after an early onslaught and a late flurry in a 4-2 win over Montenegro. The ever-impressive Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, finished as the top European goalscorer in World Cup 2018 qualifying after netting 16 times.
"I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi," were the words of Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli after a Lionel Messi hat trick against Ecuador - the 44th of his career - ensured Argentina reached the World Cup finals. They made their fans sweat by leaving it to the last game, but world football's showcase will have its star attraction.
Panama are in their first World Cup, qualifying ahead of the USA. After missing out on qualifying for the last World Cup having conceded two goals in stoppage time against the US in 2013, the world's 131st most populous nation was determined not to miss out this time around. Gabriel Torres sealed qualification with an 87th-minute header against Costa Rica, which appeared not to cross the line.
The star of the last World Cup, James Rodriguez, will get another chance to show his talent on the international stage after Colombia qualified for Russia with a 1-1 draw against Peru. Bayern Munich's Rodriguez put Colombia in front in the 56th minute and even a Peru equalizer couldn't deny Colombia their place.
Uruguay, the first-ever hosts and winners of the World Cup, will make their 13th appearance at the event. Luis Suarez scored twice as they sealed automatic qualification with a 4-2 win over Bolivia. Uruguay have been accused of having an aging team, but coach Oscar Tabarez has successfully integrated some younger players and, as in 2010 and 2014, they will be a team nobody wants to face.
Tunisia guaranteed themselves a spot at next summer's tournament in Russia after finishing top of Group A. Nabil Maaloul's side clinched a 0-0 draw against Libya in their final group game to ensure that they finished a point above DR Congo. It will be their fifth appearance at the finals.
Morocco remained unbeaten in World Cup qualifying as Group C winners without conceding a single goal, beating the Ivory Coast 2-0 in their must-win final group game. They had only reached the knockout stages of the competition once in their previous four attempts, getting knocked out by a Lothar Matthäus free kick in the round of 16 in 1986.
After finishing behind Portugal in Group B, Switzerland were handed a tricky playoff tie against Group C runners-up Northern Ireland. Former Wolfsburg left back Ricardo Rodriguez scored the only goal of the two-legged playoff from the spot in Belfast as the Swiss clinched their spot at the World Cup finals for the 11th time.
Having come through the hotly contested Group I in second place behind Iceland, Croatia picked up a convincing 4-1 aggregate win over Greece in their playoff. Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric grabbed the goals for the 1998 semifinalists, who have now qualified for five of the last six World Cups.
Senegal have qualified for the World Cup finals for only the second time after topping Group D courtesy of back-to-back wins over South Africa. "Les Lions de la Teranga" debuted in the competition in 2002 and went on to get knocked out in the quarterfinals.
Sweden pulled off the biggest scalp of the World Cup qualifying playoffs after beating Italy courtesy of a 1-0 aggregate scoreline. Jakob Johansson scored the decisive goal in the first leg in Solna as Italy failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958. For Sweden, it will be their 12th appearance at the finals, their first since 2006.
Despite only featuring at the World Cup finals once between 1930 and 2002, Australia have now qualified for a fourth-straight time after beating Syria and Honduras in consecutive two-legged playoff encounters. Captain Miles Jedinak scored a hat trick as the Socceroos beat Honduras 3-1 on aggregate to book their ticket to Russia.
After a 0-0 draw in the first leg, it was Denmark who walked away with a resounding 5-1 win over the Republic of Ireland in the second leg of their World Cup playoff. Tottenham's Christian Eriksen (above left) netted three times to fire his country to the World Cup for only the fifth time, having previously featured in 1986, 1998, 2002 and 2010.
Former Schalke winger Jefferson Farfan got on the scoresheet as Peru ended their 35-year absence from the World Cup finals after beating New Zealand 2-0 to become the final team to secure their spot in Russia. The last time Peru qualified for a World Cup, the Berlin Wall was still up and E.T. was one of the top draws in the cinemas!