Here is a fun fact for all of you football lovers. The shortest squad in the entire World cup this year was Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had an average team height of approximately 176.2 centimeters. Compare that to the tallest team in the WC, the Serbians, who had an average height of 185.6 centimeters.
All the African teams were snuggly fit within this range with a country like Senegal leading the African pack in terms of average team height.
The Senegalese World Cup squad had an average height of approximately 183.7 centimeters.
The Tunisians had an average height of 184 centimeters.
The Morocco squad had an average height of 182.4 centimeters.
The Nigerians’ average height was 181.2 centimeters.
The Egyptian’s average height was 180.1 centimeters.
With all of this respectable height, why were the Africans hell-bent on conceding goals from set-pieces?
I know, I know, being tall does not necessarily make one a good defender and defending set pieces is much more complex than just jumping and using your body parts to stop the ball from going into the net (or is it?).
However, height does come in handy when you are trying to ward off those pesky aerial balls from reaching their mark within your penalty area. Height gives your team aerial dominance, so to speak.
Having been the shortest squad, Saudi Arabia was at an obvious disadvantage when it came to defending aerial balls from corners and free kicks. For me, it did not come as a surprise when they conceded two goals from set-piece situations (we are only referring to corners and free kicks here). There was the Gazinsky’s goal in their first match against Russia, and then Suarez goal in their 1-0 loss to Uruguay.
However, the Africans fared much better in terms of height and they should have been able to use this to their advantage when it came to defending aerial balls from free kicks and corners. Each team had a good number of relatively tall players, an asset that would have surely helped some of them avoid elimination at the early stages of the competition. Things did not go exactly according to plan.
Take Egypt for instance. They lost their match against Uruguay in the dying minutes of the game because none of the Egyptians could outjump Gimenez. They were so close to earning a point from the match by the way with only a couple of minutes to stoppage time.
In that Morocco vs Iran match, a defensive blunder against a free-kick during injury time resulted in the Iranians securing all three points. Morocco was also so close to bagging a point in that game against a spiritless Iranian side. I’m sure Bouhaddouz is still having nightmares about that own goal. (Okay, this is more of a defensive miscalculation rather than a height thing, but it still goes to show that the African teams were defending these set-pieces very poorly). Five days later, they lost to Portugal, despite playing very well, because, in the fourth minute of the game, they let in a Ronaldo header from a corner kick.
Nigeria lost to Croatia also because of failing to defend set-pieces correctly. Both goals emanated from set-piece situations, with the first set-piece action resulting in an own goal. Next, the Nigerians were unable to deal with a Croatian corner definitively, resulting in some man-handling, and ultimately a penalty awarded against them.
The same set-piece nightmare visited Tunisia in their match against England. Both English goals scored in that match originated from corner kicks. This was a bad start to Tunisia’s World Cup campaign, and it only got worse from there.
The most heart-wrenching moment for African football came when Yerry Mina rose highest to meet a corner kick and head it into the back of the Senegal net. Granted, Mina is 195 cm tall, more than 10 centimeters taller than the average Senegalese player in that squad, but I feel like the Senegalese could have shown a bit more initiative by marking him comprehensively.
How many times will the African dream be quashed due to carelessly giving away set-piece opportunities? Nimechoka!!!
That Mina goal drew the curtain on Africa’s participation in this edition of the World Cup. I think this has been the continent’s worst performance in the global tournament in recent years. And I think it is quite clear where the greatest weakness in African football teams lies.
Truth be told, almost every team in this WC has conceded a goal from set-piece action, and there have been more goals from these dead ball situations in this edition of the World Cup than in any previous editions. So maybe, it’s not so much an African-specific phenomenon, but that should not be an excuse for our poor performance.
Hopefully, by 2022, all of the African teams that qualify for the WC would have mastered the art of defending set pieces by maximizing on their height advantage and scoring more goals from both open plays and set-pieces. I hope we all learn from the mistakes we made in this edition, otherwise, none of us might win this cup anytime soon.
May Croatia win the World Cup!!