Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Group 12 or Africa. After the disaster Zaire had been in 1974, African miracle was not expected. And general optimism about Africa faded away in the 1970s – the continent was poor, corrupt, ridden by political and social conflicts, corrupt and backward. Which affected football as well and if there was a miracle, it was that Africa managed to organize international tournaments at all. Not every country participated for one or another reason, withdrawals were common, as well as interrupted matches. South Africa was banned from participating. Poverty, travel, and politics shaped the fragile structure of any African tournament. World Cup qualifications went threw stages – the early ones were classic cup format and the last was was mini-championship, each team playing a home and away game against the rest. Nothing went smooth: the preliminary round was played, but in the first round the Central African Republic withdrew and Zaire progressed further without playing. Guinea and Ghana had to play a third match to produce a winner, however. Not so Tunisia and Morocco, also tied – penalty shoot-out was used in their case. Sudan and Tanzania also withdrew and Kenya and Uganda progressed without playing, but this was nothing compared to the scandal created by Cameroon and Republic of Congo. Cameroon clinched a 2-2 in Brazzaville. Playing at home the second leg, they had the obvious edge, but who knows why Congo was leading 2-1. Bad or corrupt referee? Or an excuse for poor performance? Whatever the real reason was, Cameroon left the pitch, the match was abandoned, and Congo proclaimed the winner.

The Second round benefited Nigeria – Zaire withdraw, thus making an unique and probably unmatched world record: Zaire qualified and then was eliminated without playing even a minute of football. One pair was locked in a tie and this time overtime was played – Zambia prevailed in it, finally beating Uganda 4-2.

The Third round, at least in dry statistical record, was normal. Tunisia eliminated Guinea, Nigeria – Ivory Coast, not yet called Cote d'Ivoire, and Egypt – Zambia. The last three were to produce the African representative at the World Cup finals and at least on paper the final stage appeared normal. If there was something unusual, it was the absence of the countries of more developed football – Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and particularly Ghana, traditionally considered the strongest country in football. It may be obvious today to see Nigeria among the top, but it was not so back in the 1970s. But, to a point, playing against Nigeria was decisive factor – all matches ended with wins of the host team, except Nigeria – Tunisia. The first leg was played in Tunis and ended in a scoreless tie. The match in Lagos was won – 1-0 – by the visitors, Tunisia. At the end, the tie proved more important – home victories inevitably led to equal points, but Tunisia had a point more thanks to this tie.

1.TUNISIA 4 2 1 1 7- 4 5

2.Egypt 4 2 0 2 7-11 4

3.Nigeria 4 1 1 2 5- 4 3

And so Tunisia qualified for the first time to play at World Cup finals.

At the time, it was not very exciting news: after Zaire played so incompetently in 1974, the African representative was considered the weakest possible outsider. Clearly, African nations lacked consistency and none was able to sustain even relatively competitive team for long. Tunisia was thought just lucky – and lucky thanks to the low level of African football.