WHEN Walter Winterbottom retired as England manager in 1962, his reflections on international football included this: "Watch Africa. That continent will produce the world champions before the end of the century." Wisely, he did not specify the century.
Before the 20th ended, the cry had been taken up by Pele, among others, but the tournaments kept passing with infinite promise, but no 12 inches of solid gold. Still the trophy has been brandished by representatives of only the Americas and Europe, and Africa has even been beaten in the race to the semi-finals by Asia in the form of South Korea, who fell only to Germany on home soil in 2002.
It remains a matter of time. Such has been the growing influence of African football that in the richest championship in the world, the English Premier League title may be decided by the effect on Chelsea of losing key players, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien included, to the African Cup of Nations in Angola. Twice in the past four seasons Barcelona have won Europe's greatest prize with goals from an African, Samuel Eto'o.
But the national teams tend to fall short of expectation and Nigeria in the 1990s were the most interesting case. Excitement about African football -- to be precise, black African football -- had grown since 1990, when Cameroon beat Argentina in the opening match of the World Cup and, with Roger Milla, had England at their mercy, only for impetuous tackles to let Gary Lineker stride to their rescue. And the Nigerians seemed to embody this potential.
They went to the United States in 1994 with a Dutch coach, Clemens Westerhof, and dazzled, beating Bulgaria 3-0. When they took an early lead against an Argentina team featuring not only Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo, Claudio Caniggia and Diego Simeone but a drugged and doomed Diego Maradona, we could hardly contain ourselves, even after Caniggia had scored twice.
A bit of fortune -- Maradona's ban, which so utterly dispirited Argentina that they lost their concluding group match to Bulgaria -- helped Nigeria to top the group. They took an early lead against Italy, who then had Gianfranco Zola sent off, but lost, as against Argentina.
An analysis of Nigeria's team left optimism undimmed. Several of their leading players -- Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George -- were 20, or still in their teens. Two years later, having discovered Kanu and other additional talents, they won the Olympic title, overcoming Brazil and Argentina along the way. So there was high-quality experience as well as gifted youth in the squad that went to France under the crafty management of Bora Milutinovic, a World Cup specialist.
It was 1998. In the last World Cup before the fin de siecle, we speculated, Winterbottom and Pele might be vindicated. Nor were those who knew African football dismayed by a 5-1 thrashing by Holland shortly before the tournament. Nigeria's performances in the friendlies tended to smack of exercises in lulling the rest of the world into a false sense of security.
Okocha insisted that they could still win the World Cup. Problems with money -- bonus issues have always tended to dog African teams in tournaments -- and political interference had receded. "OK, our organisation is not up to European standards," Okocha added (and by now they had players in most of the top European leagues), "but it is improving. The politicians have helped. They understand that only football can clean up our country's image."
Nigeria duly began the tournament with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Spain, overcame Bulgaria and could then relax in their final group match, letting Paraguay eliminate Spain. In the next round they faced Denmark, who had been unimpressive. After 12 minutes Nigeria were two goals down and a bewildering collapse continued until they had been beaten 4-1. So the old ills had not been addressed after all.
For the next World Cup, in the Far East in 2002, Nigeria, still with Okocha and Kanu and bolstered by players such as Joseph Yobo, responded to a long-running debate by trying an indigenous coach. Under Adegboyega Onigbinde, they gave their worst performance ever, losing to Argentina and Sweden and being knocked out by the time they faced England and obtained their only point with a scoreless draw that appeared almost consensual.
Nigeria is not the only football country to have wasted a golden generation and it must also be conceded that the 2002 tournament was partly redeemed, from the African point of view, by Senegal, who beat France, the holders, in the opening match and knocked out Sweden before losing only to a golden goal from Turkey in the quarter-finals.
Now, though Nigeria have again qualified under Nigerian management -- Shaibu Amodu appears to have the customary baggage from a politically influenced FA, including an advisory "consortium" of fellow coaches -- hope of the breakthrough switches to Africa's first World Cup, and the top-rated sides, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Perhaps we expect too much. Perhaps economic reality is always to hamper the Africans. It is worth recalling Europe's first glimpses of African footballers. In 1963, a year after Winterbottom's forecast, perhaps the best player Africa has produced came to Wembley with Benfica to face AC Milan in what would now be called the Champions League final. A dull match sprang to life as the lithe figure of Eusebio darted towards two defenders, who happened to be Cesare Maldini, the father of Paolo, and Giovanni Trapattoni.
He swerved past both and scored with a flashing low drive. Although Milan won 2-1, the twin towers had seen a contender for Pele's crown.
Eusebio had been brought to Lisbon from Mozambique. He went on to have a distinguished international career -- but with Portugal. And still, after nearly half a century, Africans generally make most impact on the game while in European employment.
For a sign of a wind of change, keep an eye on the opening match in Group G in South Africa. You might think that Ivory Coast, having drawn Holland, Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro last time, were due a bit of luck. Instead they were handed Portugal and Brazil along with North Korea. First they meet the more vulnerable-looking of the seeds, the Portuguese, and victory in this -- a mountainous contest involving Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo -- would resound.
The Ivorians could not get out of their 'group of death' last time. If on this occasion they live, Portugal could be heading out of Africa and the home continent will be on the march. Winterbottom will be watching. He died in 2002, before the false optimism engendered by Papa Bouba Diop's winner for Senegal against France in Seoul. But this could be the century.
© The Times, London