This has been a history-making World Cup for Africa, and not just for the number of contentious meetings, suspensions and threatened player boycotts. For the first time, two teams from the soccer-adoring continent advanced to the knockout stage of the tournament.
But that sense of accomplishment succumbed to reality in a matter of hours on Monday as both teams battled hard but lost to favored opponents, leaving behind more lasting images of training ground strikes, cash-laden airplanes and an assortment of missed opportunities.
Algeria lost to Germany, 2-1, in overtime and Nigeria lost to France, 2-0, leaving Africa without a team in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006. No African team, despite a history of dazzling players, has ever reached the semifinals.
The Nigerians could only watch as Paul Pogba’s header floated into the goal to give France a 1-0 lead. “Why do we go home early?” Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi, said after Nigeria’s elimination on Monday. “If I were on the field playing I don’t think I would want to go home. Maybe there are some players without too much focus on the game, and there’s probably a lot of things that are going on.”
Five African teams qualified for the World Cup, and three of them, including Nigeria, engaged in some player protest or impromptu negotiations with their soccer federations over money they were concerned they would never see.
Cameroon took the initiative even before the team boarded its plane for Brazil, with the players demanding their appearance fee for the World Cup up front, in cash. Or else, they said, they would not go. Last week the players from Ghana refused to practice and threatened a player strike in their game against Portugal unless they quickly received more than $3 million, cash in hand.
One day later, the players from Nigeria also refused to practice and made the same demand of their soccer federation: Pay us now, in cash, or we go home.
Ultimately, the presidents of Ghana and Nigeria intervened to settle the turmoil, but not before more rancor bubbled up. Two of Ghana’s best players — Kevin-Prince Boateng and Ali Sulley Muntari — were suspended before the final game when the disputes grew more personal.
At the 2006 World Cup, Togo boycotted a training session and threatened to skip a game in order to force its soccer association to pony up the dough.
Ghana’s one-day training strike last week before the arrival of its cash came two days before it played a pivotal game against Portugal. It was no way to prepare for a critical contest, and Ghana lost, 2-1.
On Thursday, before their game against France, the Nigerian players followed the Ghanaians’ lead, refusing to practice and threatening to strike unless they were paid.
The success of numerous African players in the richest leagues in Europe and elsewhere is a factor in the recurring disputes. Upon experiencing the first-class travel and guaranteed money of those leagues, those players are less tolerant of anything less than that from their national soccer associations.
Ghanaian players received crisp stacks of United States bills equaling more than $100,000 per man. One of the Ghanaian players, John Boye, was photographed kissing his bundle of cash. The next day, he accidentally scored a goal against his own team as Ghana’s World Cup ended in acrimony.