In the prime of their football careers, African greats Jay-Jay Okocha and Kalusha Bwalya were rated among the most gifted individuals to emerge from the football-mad continent.
Okocha was one of the most creative midfielders of his generation and went on to represent Nigeria at three FIFA World Cup finals and to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Bwalya played in 100 international matches for Zambia scoring 50 goals and was named African Player of the Year in 1988. One of the most acclaimed African players of all time, he never competed in a FIFA World Cup finals – partially a result of the tragedy which saw much of the Zambian national team killed in a plane crash en route to Senegal for a USA 1994 qualifier.
To this day, both of these legends speak with authority on African football and their opinions are held in high regard. FIFA.comÂ recently caught up with both of them to seek their views on the African teams that will participate at the 2010 FIFA World Cup as part of a series that focuses on African greats of the game. Join us for their take on the continentâ€™s six representatives.
â€œI think the African teams have a realistic chance of going far in this tournament, but I must say that it wonâ€™t be easy for them. To be fair to most of the African teams, they have got very tough groups and it will require some effort to get out of them. For example my country [Nigeria] has Argentina – a great team – and Greece, former European Champions. And, to be frank, the team didnâ€™t play as well in Angola [at this Januaryâ€™s CAF Africa Cup of Nations]. Yes, we finished third, but we were not consistent and we lacked balance. I donâ€™t want to be critical because we have a great team with some good players. And we have a new coach in [Lars] Lagerback, so letâ€™s see what he does with the team.
â€œBefore the Nations Cup, a lot of people were talking about CÃ´te dâ€™Ivoire, but they were disappointing at that tournament. To me, there was something missing in that team. I think they will have to learn to play as a team, play for each other during the World Cup if they want to beat good teams like Brazil and Portugal. They have some of the best players in Africa currently.
â€œThen you have countries like Cameroon and Algeria â€“ both good teams who can cause an upset. Cameroon has not been consistent lately. Yes they are capable of beating any team on their day, but the question is, can they replicate that performance every match? Algeria played well in Angola, but I was not really convinced. Their advantage was that it looked like they were playing as a unit, fighting for each other all the time. Thatâ€™s good.
â€œSouth Africa are another side to watch. When you come up against the hosts, itâ€™s always tricky for any opponent. I watched them during the Confederations Cup last year, and I was impressed. Now people know what they can do when the stage is bigger. They have players like [Steven] Pienaar and [Benni] McCarthy. Pienaar is one of the best players in England, so they cannot be discarded.â€
â€œAfrican teams are in a different and better position than previous tournaments, and I think we are better prepared. We do have the confidence and experience, and I believe our teams now believe they can achieve success at this level. African players such as Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoâ€™o, to mention just a few, have played significant roles for their European clubs over the last two years.
There is a lot of belief from Africans teams. African players have grown a lot, and they now have the belief that is necessary to succeed. And, I think that is because there has become a lot of acceptance in Europe for African players and what they offer to the game. They are now treated as equals to their European counter_parts.
â€œI think Ghana has been the most consistent team from Africa, and they are favourites at the moment. CÃ´te dâ€™Ivoire is a world class team, and they have some of the top players currently playing for big teams in Europe. In 2006, they did very well despite tough opposition, and I think at some stage they were a bit unfortunate in not getting the right results, but that is all part of learning. I think they learned a lot during that period and gained valuable experience.
â€œThe South Africa side is not a bad team at all, and I think they showed that during the Confederations Cup. They have some good individual players. I believe they should have concentrated more on playing African opposition after that tournament. They did not qualify for [the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in] Angola and that was a big blow for them. You need to play competitive matches before such a big tournament. Friendly matches are not the same, they donâ€™t offer the same intensity.
â€œA number of other teams have impressed me. Cameroon remain a good, solid side. A lot has been said about them, but they are a good side. I think one of their best decisions was making Samuel Etoâ€™o a captain. He is a top striker and an influential figure. Nigeria has also been good, even though they have not got the results at times. You have to understand the pressure that comes with wearing that Nigerian jersey _ itâ€™s immense. But I back them to do better in this tournament.â€