Why are African national teams failing to replicate their youth results at senior level?

There’s no doubt that African teams are right up there with the best in the world in the youth categories. The numbers don’t lie, and powerful countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana have practically dominated the U17 and U20 scene over the last few years.

Those results, however, haven’t translated to the senior ranks, as African sides are yet to appear in the semi-finals of a World Cup. The Black Stars, The Super Eagles, and The Indomitable Lions have all reached the round of 16, with Cameroon and Ghana the only sides to have made it to the quarter-finals. Therefore, they’ve struggled to repeat the success they’ve achieved in the younger levels.

First, let’s take a look at the results of Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana at the youth levels in FIFA competitions such as the World Cup and the Olympics.

Ghana were especially dominant in the 1990s at the U17 level, winning two titles (1991 and 1995) and recording two second-place finishes in 1993 and 1997. They are the only team to have reached four consecutive finals at that level. They also won the U20 World Cup in 2009, and won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics – a tournament restricted to the U23 level. The Black Stars are the only African team to have ever won both the U17 and U20 World Cups.

Nigeria aren’t far behind, though. The Super Eagles won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, becoming the first African team to accomplish this feat. Their U17 team has excelled the most though, having won five World Cup’s at this level (1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015) and finishing as runners-up on three other occasions (1987, 2001 and 2009). Their U20 team is not nearly as successful, but still respectable; they finished as runners-up twice (1989, 2005), and also captured a third place in 1985.

Cameroon might be the least successful team of the three, but they still have a piece of silverware of their own. The Indomitable Lions won gold at the 2000 Olympics, when the squad led by Samuel Eto’o defeated Chile in the semi-finals and Spain in the final. They are yet to finish in the top three at the U17 or U20 levels, however.

Based on these results, one might think that African sides would be poised to make a big impact at the senior level. They seem to have the talent to do so, but somehow they always fall short. The table below represents the best results each country has achieved at the senior FIFA World Cup.

Two quarterfinals for three countries that won a combined eight titles and three medals between the U17 and U23 levels – this shows a clear disparity in performance between that of the youth and senior teams.

The overall record doesn’t make for much better reading. Here are their results since 1994 at the Fifa World Cup:

Things get a little bit better when analysing their performances at the African Cup of Nations over the last 20 years, but they still don’t dominate as much as one might expect, as evidenced by the table below:

One might expect they would always be near the top of the standings, yet since 1996 these three countries have only managed three African Cup titles combined. Ghana has been the most successful, finishing in the top four in each of the last five tournaments, while Cameroon hasn’t reached the semi-finals since 2008. Nigeria might have won in 2013, but that title is sandwiched between two tournaments in which they failed to qualify. The numbers look decent, but they are still somewhat below expectations; they dominate the world at youth level, but they fail to dominate even their own continent as they get older.

Is there a reason for this phenomenon? One possible explanation is that African teams possess a physical advantage over other nations in terms of stamina and overall development, which would be helpful to explain why they are so successful at the younger levels. It must be noted that Africans are, in general, taller, stronger, and decidedly faster than South Americans and Europeans. These traits are especially accentuated at a younger age, and gives African players an edge in this department.

There’s another reason, though. African players tend to underachieve at the senior level, and it seems they peak earlier in their careers when compared to European and South American players, thus leading them to play in lower European leagues – even causing some early retirements. One could expect several African players featuring in some of the top leagues considering the success they have at youth level, but this isn’t the case.

The graph below represents the amount of African players featuring in Europe’s top-five leagues: Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England.

As we can see, Ligue 1 in France has the largest contingent of African players amongst the top European leagues, with the smallest quantity playing in the German Bundesliga. If we separate Ghanaian, Nigerian and Cameroonian players only, we can see there aren’t too many, and the few ones that play, tend to struggle to make a big impact.

To put things into perspective, this is the amount of playing time African players got in the top two French leagues during the last season:

It’s commonly said that African teams are more successful at youth level due to the fact that, due to a lack of regulation, some older players occasionally compete. However, as we dig deep into the numbers, we realise this isn’t the reason. It’s simply because they fail to carry on with the results they achieved at the younger levels, and they fail to progress as expected. All the advantages they have in the youth levels disappear at the senior category.

Is this going to change in the future? It’s hard to tell, but only time will give us the answer.