No clear African candidate for 2010 victory

JOHANNESBURG - On paper, Africa should have its best chance yet of soccer's ultimate trophy when the World Cup kicks off for the first time on its soil a year from now. Territorial advantage is key to victory. No European nation has ever won a World Cup hosted outside that continent and only South American sides have ever triumphed at past World Cups hosted on their turf. Pele famously once predicted an African side would win the trophy by the turn of the last century but a decade later, and with the cup hosted by South Africa, chances still look slim. While Africa will have the highest ambitions, a potential pretender to the crown is far from obvious. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with around 100 million people and a big exporter of talent, has consistently disappointed, dragged down in the past by administrative problems and a lack of consistency. The Super Eagles did not even qualify for the last finals in Germany but an away win over France last week in a friendly in St Etienne suggested new potential and they duly beat Kenya in a World Cup qualifier at the weekend. Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Morocco and Tunisia should have legitimate aspirations but the first two's chances were badly knocked back last weekend in qualifying matches. African champions Egypt suffered a shock 3-1 defeat to Algeria and Cameroon were held to a goalless draw by Morocco. Ghana and Ivory Coast did much better, the former beating key rivals Mali to top their group and the latter putting down Guinea to stay on top of theirs. FIRST PHASE Few are looking to hosts South Africa however to do much more than pass through the first phase in the World Cup finals, a bad outcome if local crowds are to stay involved. Although South Africa coach Joel Santana has previously told aghast reporters he believes the host nation will win the World Cup, the country's consistent dive down the world rankings and failure to qualify for next year's African Nations Cup finals point to limited potential. Santana has also fallen out with two key players -- English-based striker Benni McCarthy and defender Nasief Morris -- both of whom have been dropped for this month's test event, the Confederations Cup. For the 2010 World Cup, Africa will have an unprecedented six places. Hosts South Africa qualify automatically and are joined by the five winners of the final-round qualifying groups. These will be decided only in November but the picture will be clearer after two rounds of qualifiers this month. At the 2006 World Cup, four of Africa's representatives qualified for the first time. The shock progress through the preliminaries of both Angola and Togo pointed to a closing of the gap between the continent's long-standing football powers and the chasing pack, but that is now considered to have been something of an anomaly. Africa has produced more genuine world-class players in recent years, such as Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Ghana and Samuel Eto'o for Cameroon. But at national-team level, they are frequently surrounded by players of a more limited capability and find the burden of expectation hard to fulfil. Eto'o, for example, had as his strike partner at the 2008 African Nations Cup a journeyman forward who had just been released by his Mexican club. No African side has ever gone past the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Cameroon's Indomitable Lions capturing the world's imagination with their flair in 1990 and Senegal upending defending champions France on their way to the last eight in 2002. Progress into the semi-finals for at least one African country would be the minimum expectation at the 2010 edition but Pele is likely to have to wait longer still before his prophecy is fulfilled.