Pele was unparalleled as a soccer player. But as a prognosticator? Not so much.
In fact, the three-time World Cup champion’s forecasts have been so laughably wrong, former Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari once advised, “If you want to win a title, you have to listen to Pele and then do the opposite.”
But there was one prediction Pele made that seemed so solid no one begged to differ. An African team, he said, soon would win the World Cup.
Nearly three decades later, we’re still waiting to find out which one.
Africa is off to another dismal start in this World Cup, with its first four teams to play losing before Senegal broke that streak Tuesday with a 2-1 win over Poland at Spartak Stadium.
And Senegal wasn’t the only country celebrating.
“Senegal today represents the whole of the African continent,” coach Aliou Cisse said through a translator. “I get phone calls from everywhere.
“We’re also proud to represent Africa.”
Cisse, too, thought Africa would be further along by now. He was captain of the Senegalese team that stunned defending champion France and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 tournament.
No African team has gone further.
If anything, the continent has gone backward, its teams combining to win just 11 of 58 games since. Only four African teams have managed to get out of the group stage in the last three World Cups.
“Nigeria had one of the best African squads at the 1994 World Cup. We were knocking on the door. We won the 1996 Olympics by beating Brazil and Argentina with all their stars.
“That period was like, ‘Yes, it’s coming.’ ”
Now it seems as far off as ever. With Egypt’s loss to Russia late Tuesday ending its chances of reaching the knockout stage, Africa’s five teams — none are ranked among the top 20 in the world — are a combined 1-5 in this World Cup.
The obstacles come more from organization and support than talent. Four years ago in Brazil, Ghana’s players had to boycott training to get money that had been promised to them; their government eventually sent more than $3 million in cash by plane to settle the debt. And Cameroon’s players arrived late in Brazil because of a dispute over bonus payments.
“It takes time. We have realities that aren’t there on other continents,” Cisse said. “But we have a lot of quality, and I’m sure that one day, African teams will be able to win tournaments like Brazil and Germany.
“We have no inferiority complex with European countries; you see lots of Africa players at major clubs.”
In fact, 10 of the 11 players Cisse started against Poland play on major first- or second-division clubs on the continent. Yet Senegal relied more on luck than skill for their two goals Tuesday.
On the first, Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye’s shot from just outside the penalty area appeared headed directly into the gloved hands of Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny when it struck the leg of defender Thiago Cionek and caromed into the net for a first-half own goal.
The second goal was even more quirky.
During a stoppage in play to allow trainers to help forward M’baye Niang off the field, Senegal signaled that Cheikh N’Doye would be coming on to replace his injured teammate. But as the substitution was being announced on the scoreboard, Niang protested, insisting he could continue.
The timing proved fortuitous because just as center referee Nawaf Shukralla waved Niang back on, Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak put his foot into a long back pass that N’Doye, sprinting off the sidelines, dashed after. Poland’s Jan Bednarek, who had no idea Niang had left the sideline, was pushed off the ball, and when Szczesny was late in arriving to help, N’Doye wound up with an easy tap-in for the goal.
“We were very surprised,” Polish coach Adam Nawalka said through a translator. “The players thought there would be a substitute coming into the pitch. That’s why there was a big misunderstanding.”
Poland halved the lead with four minutes left in regulation, with Krychowiak heading in a long free kick from Kamil Grosicki. But it could get no closer.
As for Africa’s getting closer to a World Cup champion, Cisse remains hopeful.
“I have the certainty that one day an African country will win the World Cup,” he said. “Some 20 to 25 years ago, African teams came just to be a part of the World Cup. Things have developed now.
“We’ve shown that we can do much more. We can participate and have excellent results. We just need to go to the next phase.”
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional context and comments.
This article was originally published at 10:10 a.m.