As in most parts of the world, football is the most popular sport across the African continent. With countless African-born players performing at some of the most prestigious clubs in the world, there has been a constant flow of talent for many years. However, despite Pelé’s prediction that the continent would provide a FIFA World Cup winner by 2000, we still await an African world champion. In this article, the KPMG Football Benchmark team examines the performance of African nations in the FIFA World Cup.
In the early years of the competition, the only African side to participate was Egypt in 1934. In subsequent decades, conflict and political instability have jeopardised uniform qualification criteria, and Africa did not have a single assured place until 1970, when Morocco booked their ticket for Mexico. In reality, the initial performances of African countries in the modern World Cup were unimpressive and it was not until 1978 that Tunisia secured the first African victory when they beat Mexico.
As FIFA membership grew, in 1982 the World Cup finals format was expanded to 24 participants, with Africa having two guaranteed slots. The Spanish edition of the tournament put African nations on the map of world football for the first time; both Cameroon and Algeria (who beat eventual finalists West Germany in their opening match) were only eliminated after controversial results. The stage looked set for a brighter future for African nations and in the subsequent 1986 World Cup, Morocco became the first country from the continent to achieve qualification for the sudden-death phase. Although eventually succumbing to runners-up West Germany by 1-0, the footballing world started to acknowledge the rising African movement that, at last, seemed able to compete at the highest level. This sentiment consolidated in 1990, when Roger Milla’s Cameroon became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals before only narrowly losing to England in extra time.
This particularly impressive performance secured Africa an additional place for the 1994 World Cup. It seemed only a matter of time before an African nation would reach the latter stages. However, despite a solid performance in the group stages, Nigeria lost in the round of 16 against eventual finalists Italy in the USA, again after extra time; hopes of a major upset in the World Cup dwindled once more and expectations became more tempered around Africa’s position in global football.
Since 1998 , FIFA has awarded Africa five slots out of 32, but this expanded format has not yet delivered any significant improvement for African nations. Indeed, in the five editions of the tournament between 1998 and 2014, notwithstanding a record 26 African sides participating, only two teams reached the quarter-finals (Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010), and a place in the latter stages has continued to elude the continent’s football powers. In the same time span, a further characteristic of the African dilemma is demonstrated by on-pitch performance: all the African nations combined have not scored on average more than three points each, scoring an all-time low of 2.3 points in 2010, despite a record number of participants (six) from the continent.
Why have African Nations underperformed on the big stage in the most recent FIFA World Cup tournaments?
While the main football superpowers continue to develop their grassroots and infrastructure, African countries still suffer from chronic under-development and socio-economic instability. Infrastructure across the continent is still in need of improvement, with the exception of a few countries such as South Africa, the first African Nation to host a World Cup in 2010. Infrastructure is considered a key enabler for the development of football in a country and the lack of it ultimately impacts the development of talented players and coaches. Indeed, since the expansion of the FIFA World Cup in 1998, fewer than 30% of African nations (seven) were coached by an African manager.
Moreover, another trend is the inconsistency among participants between World Cups. While this has been influenced by the allocation of World Cup slots within FIFA - the Confederation of African Football has 56 countries competing to get to the finals but only five places available; Europe, out of 55 UEFA members, is awarded 13 places - the figures suggest that in the African continent sporting performance seems to be related to current momentum rather than to longer-term planned organisation.
With the exceptions of Cameroon, appearing in seven of the last nine editions, and Nigeria participating in five of the last six, many nations have struggled to build genuine momentum. Morocco, a regular participant in the early editions, have not qualified since 1998 while Ivory Coast has taken part in all the final tournaments since first appearing in 2006, but never made it before. On the other hand, Zaire, Togo and Angola have qualified just once while Egypt, winners of three consecutive African Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010, have not made it to the World Cup finals since 1990. The consequence of this trend is that players invariably lack regular experience of competing against the best international opposition.
The struggles of local federations to meet the expectations of squad members accustomed to the highest professional standards have often resulted in conflicts with players, arguably hampering the much-needed cohesion and concentration of teams in major tournaments. For example, before the 2014 tournament, Cameroon refused to board a plane to Brazil until their bonuses were reassessed, and there were also disagreements over pay involving both Ghana and Nigeria.
The upcoming expanded format to 48 participants, becoming effective from the 2026 World Cup, may allocate up to nine slots to the African continent, almost twice the current number. While the previous expansion in 1998 did not bring about any benefit in terms of enhanced performance, the increased number of participants seems likely to grant Africa’s major footballing nations a more regular presence on the global stage and positively impact the continent’s development in the long-term. However, the challenges faced by African nations undoubtedly extend beyond football and for Africa to succeed globally, on a sustainable basis, a clear pathway for success needs to be cultivated.
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 In 2010, South Africa qualified automatically as host country.