An African nation would win the World Cup by the end of the 20th century. This was the claim, a rather cliché one, made by Pelé in 1977, which has burdened African nations ever since – a prediction that they have never been allowed to forget.

A glimpse of light, however, shed upon Africa when South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was supposed to be the pinnacle of African football. The results, though, proved Pelé wrong yet again, as out of the six African nations in the tournament only Ghana managed to qualify from their group, before losing to Uruguay in the quarter-finals. They can play, but they can never win. This was the phrase that described the state of African football at the time.

Despite being persistently tipped as the coming force, with a plethora of talent bursting from the ‘Land of Opportunity’, many of whom ply their trade at top European clubs, it has been argued that success in African football seems to be distributed erratically with very little impact on the grassroots of the game. Reports on the development of African football prior to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany emphasized that African teams must demonstrate steady progress up the ladder of international football to have any chance of fulfilling Pelé’s clichéd forecasts, which has, and rightly so, been a very difficult yet overwhelming goal to achieve, largely due to the fact that for all the money that circulates around in African football, most of it does not actually return to Africa to benefit the grassroots development. Globalisation at its finest, some might argue.

The recent African Cup of Nations tournament held in Equatorial Guinea does offer some hope and evidence to suggest that African nations might, finally, be on the path to international success, especially with finalists Ghana and winners Ivory Coast boasting a pool of young and exciting talents in Serge Aurier, Jordan Ayew, Rahman Baba and Christian Atsu, just to name a few, while not forgetting some of the ambassadors of African football in recent years in the likes of Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony, Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan.

But the question of whether an African team can achieve international dominance still prevails, probably even more so now than before, especially when huge advances are being made by individual African players, much to the opening up of global markets in football that allows overseas clubs to take advantage of the situation by exploiting talents with lucrative deals, often at a very early age.

Former Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba is a prime example, who spent his formative years in France before establishing himself as a mainstream presence in European football, and of those who stayed at home in Ivory Coast, many, most notably the Toure brothers, came through youth academies of former French International Jean-Marc Guillou, which was specifically designed to scour and cultivate raw talents with the aim to export them to club sides in France and other European sides in the future.

Therefore, does African nations have the capacity to really achieve international success, or does the phrase ‘they can play, but they can never win’ still apply today?

Despite the often stereotypical, if not common, perception about the development of African football as cultivating prototype footballers with great power and physique, plenty of work has been done to aid the footballing development in the whole of the continent of Africa that exceeds merely producing excellent individual talents.

FIFA, for instance, during their Development Seminar for African member associations at the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup in Marrakech, Morocco, expanded on the developmental progresses made in Africa since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and discussed the ways to use the success of the 2010 World Cup to determine visions for upcoming priorities and opportunities to further football development in Africa.

The development project ‘Win in Africa with Africa’, launched by FIFA in the wake of the 2010 World Cup with a budget of over thirty-nine million US dollars, is an example of the objective to build solid foundations for the continuous development of football in Africa by supplying fifty-two countries on the continent with FIFA-standard high-quality pitches to allow accessibility for more footballers in Africa the opportunity to play.

In addition, FIFA has also developed a program called ‘Goal’ that aims to provide funding and support to suitable projects across Africa, focusing to create a blueprint for football development that include essential infrastructures, such as pitches, facilities, accommodations and technical centres. The fully financed youth talent academy in Rwanda that oversees the preparation of the U17 and U20 teams is a specific example of success for the ‘Goal’ project.

Aside from ‘Goal’, FIFA also run courses in the areas of coaching, futsal and refereeing, along with medical and administrative courses to instil an educational mind set to the game in order to facilitate learning and sustainable development. The ultimate target for all of these development programs is to find solutions to optimize the performance of African football; that said, FIFA’s initiative to strategically implement performance centres throughout Africa, with eleven established by 2011, through their Performance Programme with a budget of thirty-eight million US dollars is seen as another positive leap towards uplifting African football.

In total, FIFA has contributed over five hundred million US dollars since 1999, which includes the FIFA’s Financial Assistance Programme introduced in 2001 that provided grants to each of the ruling body’s 209 member associations in Africa. It is no surprise, then, that African countries have vowed to solidly stand behind and support Sepp Blatter in this year’s FIFA presidential elections.

But is African football progressing as a result of these improvements? From one perspective, if based on the steady rise in performance of African nations throughout the World Cup history, one can suggest, or, rather, believe that progress has certainly being made and that these development projects will provide further boost to help African football.

Ever since Tunisia became the first African nation to win a World Cup game in 1978, nations like Cameroon and Nigeria have demonstrated moments of magic by beating Argentina in 1990 and Spain in 1998 respectively; new African forces in Ivory Coast emerging in 2006, Senegal reaching the quarter-finals in 2002, as did Ghana in 2010, and Egypt crowned the champions of the past three African Cup of Nations. The talks of progress in African football have increasingly intensified during the past two decades, and rightly so to some extent.

But on the other hand, can you really call this progress? Given the quality of players Africa has produced, evidenced by the number of Africans in top European leagues (in the 2012/2013 season, 36 African players featured in the Premier League, 125 in Ligue 1, 27 in La Liga, 22 in Bundesliga, and 24 in Serie A), it could be argued that yes, there is indeed progress being made internationally.

However, the football projects established in Africa are often used for political and economic purposes that only harm Africa’s future rather than support domestic development, both at grassroots and national level. Hence while individual African talents continue to emerge and flourish in Europe, the game itself in Africa seems to have declined and reversed back to its beginnings. Of course, whether we should subscribe to this myth of ‘progress’ is entirely up to individuals, but the evidence of institutionalized corruption in Africa as well as the increase exploitation of players by European sides, or as some say the new form slavery, is putting the future of the game into jeopardy.

The European clubs that cream off the best African talent are not there to develop the infrastructure or grassroots of the game; for them it’s all about business and trying their best to secure talented players at an early age in the hope of striking it rich in the future. Great chance for players to develop and establish themselves in Europe, no doubt, but little does it help to shape the legacy of football development within Africa.

Some of the individual-ran football projects around the world targeting to help develop an African football community are also not, unfortunately, always operating to the best interest of African football per se, as often their sole purpose is to market their project as an opportunity to earn a prestigious football or academic scholarship to pursue a career in international football.

The Barcelona Football Festival and Qatar’s ASPIRE Football Dreams are some of the example projects that, from the outset, is designed to offer children from many developing countries in Africa the opportunity to enter professional football, but what it really offers is the chance to attract scouts from Europe to snatch up talented individuals away from Africa.

Despite that South Africa has in recent years managed to earn a solid reputation for its youth football development, with Cape Town’s African Soccer Development School a prime example and Rivaldo Coetzee one of their most prominent graduates today, the shifting of the European market and economic system means that the best players from Africa, if not properly rewarded, will be tempted to move abroad, which, in the long run, only benefits the European sides, and not Africa.

What makes matters worse is that developing the game in Africa is also not short of controversies related to politics and corruption. Sepp Blatter of FIFA, for instance, has been accused of using football development projects to befriend African football administrators for political intentions.

In Africa, using football as a vehicle for personal gain is not any different, either; administrators and other rich and powerful individuals often use their positions within football to amass wealth, power and continued political influence.

Since the government in Africa is the biggest sponsor of national teams and heavily involved in infrastructural developments of the game, corruption can also demoralize players, as in the case when Togolese players threatened to strike for non-payment of bonuses at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and, in the worse instance, corruption can also drag the players to be involved as was seen when thirteen Zimbabwean players and officials were banned for life for their role in the Asiagate match-fixing scandal in 2012.

Therefore, even if the development of the game in Africa is showing signs of improvement, corruption is slowly suffocating the game across the continent because the money required to flow to the grassroots to invigorate development are instead in the pockets of the officials. Thus the narrative of progress remains a seductive myth, at least for now.

In the midst of these negativity surrounding African football, there is still a candle of hope burning, but it will gradually fade if African nations do not put their personal interests aside and begin to want to win as a nation. Long-term success in international football requires not just a few star players but strength in depth, but it’s far too easy said than done; Africa is in desperate need of football infrastructure at the grassroots as well as sound management, serious youth development for boys and girls and better coaches’ training across the continent to enhance and maintain long-term sustainability.

The stakes are high, but instances of hope remain. For example, across the West African region, there seems to be a consensus to follow the template employed by Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi, who led Nigeria to their triumph in the 2013 African Cup of Nations that focuses to develop players in the local league to increase internal competitiveness as well as the solid distribution of talent. But more needs to be done, not just in Nigeria, to ensure consistency in development.

But with the advancement of satellite television, the global reach of European clubs has placed the under-developed and mal-administrated African football at a difficult crossroad, where competing with increased accessibility of European football further diminishes hope for uplifting African football, especially if there is no foundation to establish a blueprint for future development.

Although there is a greater breadth of talent emerging from Africa than ever before, the difference between African nations and other countries is that the search for the next untapped reservoir of talent in Africa is driven by the desire for affordable labour, whereas in England or Brazil, there will always be someone looking for the next Rooney or Neymar to keep the national team afloat.

Football today is a big business and should also be treated like one, but the focus must be on the grassroots of the game if African nations are truly hoping to achieve international recognition.

But as long as there are political and economic benefits to running football in Africa, corruption will always remain an integral part of the game. It is not that no one is willing to try and make a difference, but dealing with corruption is made difficult, a near impossible task, by standing FIFA rules of non-interference in football matters by governments or state bodies that prevent thorough inspection and monitoring of football authorities.

They can play, but they can never win; unfortunately, this will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.

By Luyang Syvanen

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona