On Sunday night, inside Lusail Stadium, Lionel Messi finally completed the gauntlet of football and, in doing so, delivered Argentina’s first World Cup victory in 36 years.
However, that was not the only story of triumph to tell about the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The Atlas Lions may have fallen short of a podium finish but, in reaching the last four, they went farther than any African nation had ever managed and won the hearts of millions around the continent and beyond. And in the process, they proved they can go toe to toe with any top opponent.
“African teams no longer fear that other teams can run them over,” Radhi Jaidi, former Tunisia international and Esperance manager, told Al Jazeera.
Twelve years after South Africa became the first country from the continent to host the World Cup, it is entirely justified to brand Qatar 2022 also as Africa’s World Cup, all things considered.
On the field, the continent posted its best-ever statistical performance, with every African team recording a victory, including Cameroon stunning Brazil, Tunisia beating France and Morocco defeating Belgium. And off the field, African teams’ supporters also stole the show – from the relentless drumming and dancing of the Senegal and Ghana contingent to the thunderous chanting and clapping of their Morocco and Tunisia counterparts.
And there was more: For the first time, all five representatives from the continent were led by local managers.
While the link could be seen by some as coincidental, the contrast between this tournament and the 2018 edition – in which two of the five teams were managed by African coaches, but none made it past the group stage, and between them, won just three matches in total – is impossible to ignore.
For a continent that, over the years, has made a habit of paying handsome sums to expatriates on short-term contracts, the achievement of Morocco’s Walid Regragui could lead to an awakening.
“The success of Morocco is very important for the continent and other local coaches, too,” Jaidi said.
“It’s a great message to have a local manager succeed,” he said, adding that qualified homegrown coaches should be allowed to compete at the highest level,” he added.
“Employing a foreign coach is always seen as an opportunity by those in charge at the federations to sell the narrative that they’ve appointed someone advanced who will take the nation to the next level.”
While Jaidi is eager that African coaches to be afforded more trust, he also believed they must raise their level by obtaining the required qualifications and exposure.
“African coaches must strive to be the best in modern football, be the ones to help the players progress to the next level, but before they get a chance to work with the players they need to progress themselves. They must learn how modern football works, because it’s not just tactics on the pitch but a lot of other aspects.”
A bigger picture with 2026
With Qatar 2022 already in the past, attention will now shift to whether African teams can build on their Qatar performances in the next edition of the tournament, which will be contested by 48 teams.
The expansion means the continent will have at least nine teams playing at the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada, with the possibility of a 10th representative should an African team make it through an intercontinental playoff.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity, as historically Africa has suffered from under-representation on the global stage.
“Tournaments like the World Cup are very competitive and big, but if things are put in place and players arrive in the tournament in great conditions, I think Africa can make a great impact,” former Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa coach Philippe Troussier told Al Jazeera.
“Morocco have challenged other African countries to fight for the trophy instead of trying to celebrate small progress. This will change the face of African football and teams forever.”
While African teams’ successes in Qatar suggest there is scope for improvement in North America in 2026, Jaidi insists there is still work to do if the continent is to deliver on its potential.
“We all need to learn from what Morocco did to get to this level,” he said, citing among others the North African nation’s commitment to developing local coaches – 20 of the 23 recipients of the inaugural Confederation of African Football Pro Licence coaching diploma in June were Moroccan.
Continued Jaidi, “Providing great infrastructures around the clubs and national level to get to where they are now, a great federation, one of the world’s best training centres of football, scouting of local and diaspora talents.
“Their success is not by chance or accidental, it’s been planned and programmed and part of the result is the success in Qatar – and they continue to build on this.”
Former Wolves and Nigeria midfielder Seyi Olofinjana, who recently held the technical director role at Swiss club Grasshopper Zurich, was of the same view.
“There needs to be a way, desire and deliberate plan on the part of the federations that is then disseminated to the players,” he told Al Jazeera. “Morocco was a joy to watch because they’ve managed to merge their plans with a proven manager and players ready to play without lacking the overall knowledge of the collective goal.”
Another likely factor in Africa’s unprecedented success in the Middle East was the composition of their squads. More than 40 percent of the players named as part of the rosters of the five representatives were born outside Africa, a factor which Jaidi believed played a part in levelling the playing field in Qatar.
For Troussier, the fact that African teams featured a number of foreign-born players was also advantageous.
“Most of these players are educated from the beginning; a player born in Germany, France, Italy and in the Netherlands, they play automatically at a different level, they share time with high-level coaches, high-level players, technical programmes and automatically when they come back to the country, they bring a strong experience,” he said.
The Frenchman, however, stressed that local growth should not be neglected.
“These players will help improve the team, but the federations must also prepare, develop a programme and strategy that can help improve the country’s football,” he said.
It is this merging of approaches that Morocco – whose World Cup squad featured 14 players born outside the country – benefitted from, according to Olofinjana,
“It’s evident that there’s a culture of what it means to play for Morocco from the players, technical staff and even the supporters,” he said. “You could sense that there’s an element of what it meant to wear the Moroccan shirt.
“The country has created a sense of the importance of representing Morocco. Ahead of the coming World Cup, Morocco has shown the rest of Africa that it is very possible to reach the semifinals, and even the final of the tournament.”