South America to eye Africa closely

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The other clash between the two continents in the group phase of the World Cup is Uruguay against the hosts, but here the South Americans are out of luck -- South Africa didn't qualify for Angola. But Uruguay might meet Nigeria in the second round, just as Paraguay might be up against Cameroon and Chile could take on Ivory Coast. So from the South American point of view, some important reconnaissance work will be taking place over the next few weeks.

This is a rivalry that's gaining in importance. As far back as the 1928 Summer Olympics, teams from the two continents found themselves coming up against each other. On that occasion, Argentina beat Egypt in the semifinals. Most of Africa's "firsts" belonged to the north of the continent -- Egypt was the first to play in a World Cup in 1934. Tunisia, in '78, was the first to win a game. Four years later, Algeria was the first to beat South American opposition, when it overcame Chile 3-2. And in '86, Morocco was the first to get beyond the group phase.

But now the sub-Saharan part of the continent is on the move. In all, there have been 13 World Cup clashes between teams from South America and sub-Saharan Africa. The South Americans are ahead 7-2, with four matches drawn. The only successful African team was the Cameroon side of '90, with RogerMilla and Oman Biyik. They beat Argentina, then reigning world champions, by a single goal and then won a 2-1 victory over Colombia.

For Brazil, the story starts and -- until this coming June -- ends in Germany. The first meeting was a 3-0 win for Brazil over Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was then known) in '74, and culminates in Brazil beating Ghana 3-0 in the '06 World Cup. Same score line -- but so much has changed.

There is a famous incident in '74, when Brazil had a free kick on the edge of the Zaire penalty area. Before the kick could be taken, one of the African defenders charged out of the wall and booted the ball into the stands, and then turned round with the air of a man who has done nothing wrong. He seemed unaware of the rules of the game.

It appears that Zaire was perturbed by Brazil placing men in its defensive wall. It was a ruse the team had not seen before. It was, to be fair, a relatively new practice. England had observed it in the previous World Cup, held a crisis meeting and decided that captain Bobby Moore would stand behind the Brazilian intruder, where he proceeded to catch the ball on his chest and stride out of defense in his usual imperious manner. Zaire's improvised response was a little cruder.

But you could hardly blame them. They had been kept out of the loop of international football. They were isolated. Some of their technique on the ball was impressive. But they were hopelessly inexperienced at the level, and defended as if they had never seen a cross in their lives -- hence the 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia.

Twenty-two years later, it was a different story when Ghana met Brazil. The Africans still lost 3-0. But had they taken their chances, and had Brazil not been allowed a blatantly offside goal, the game could have been much closer. The Black Stars were World Cup first-timers, much like Ivory Coast, which pushed Argentina all the way before going down 2-1.

These teams were making their first appearance at the highest level of the game, but in no way were they naïve, still less a laughingstock. By now, they were battle-hardened, well and truly in the loop with almost all their players making their living with top European clubs.

This mass movement of players to Europe is a paradoxical process. In his magnificent global history of football, The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt writes of African football taking "a step further up the down escalator -- an almost impossible balancing act of developing the game by engagement with the highest levels of professional football and under-developing the game by draining domestic football of its leading talents and attractions."

Here, South America can sympathize. Its domestic game has also become sadly accustomed to selling its stars rather than selling its spectacle. The big advantage South America has over Africa is time. Its countries gained independence early in the 19th century. One hundred years later, football was introduced as the region was urbanizing and millions of immigrants were pouring in.

Football gave them a common currency, was reinterpreted by the South Americans and quickly became a question of national pride -- more than half a century before the global market opened up and whisked away their best players. That 50 years was easily enough for the South American domestic game to develop a tradition, a cultural importance and a mystique that gives it something to fall back on in the age of globalization.

The African club game has not been so fortunate. South of the Sahara, most of the countries only became independent when the "wind of change" hit the continent in the 1950s and '60s. There has been much less time to build up local traditions. In some parts, loyalty to English Premier League clubs seems to go deeper than that for local outfits. But where international teams are concerned, gaps are closing. The best African players are sharpening their game with the same European clubs that sign the best South Americans, and the best players from all over the world, regardless of nationality.

In those years since Zaire's World Cup humiliation, the sub-Saharan African national teams have made dramatic strides. Four years ago, making its World Cup debuts, Ghana gave Brazil some awkward moments and Ivory Coast pushed Argentina all the way. Armed with that experience, and now on their home continent, they and the other African sides should be even stronger this June.

During the African Cup of Nations, then, the South Americans, and everyone else, should use their reconnaissance time wisely.