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WORLD CUP '94 / 21 DAYS AND COUNTING : Moving Up : African Teams Gaining Recognition; Nigeria Strongest of Three Entries

May 27, 1994|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixty years have passed since Abdel Rahman Fawzi of Egypt wrote his name into the history of the World Cup.

That was in Italy in 1934, when Egypt became the first African country to take part in the tournament. It was a brief appearance, a 4-2 loss to Hungary at Naples that sent the Egyptians home right away. But not before Fawzi had scored two goals to become the first African to score in the World Cup.

Six decades later, another African is considered a good bet to win the scoring title in World Cup '94.

Few American fans may have heard of Rachidi Yekini, but if Nigeria lives up to its potential in this tournament, Yekini will quickly become just as well known as Cameroon's Roger Milla in Italia '90.

This is the first World Cup in which three African countries will be participating,

Cameroon's excellent performance in Italy four years ago having earned the continent a third berth. The three nations that qualified are Nigeria, Cameroon and Morocco.

Of the three, Nigeria is clearly the one with "most likely to succeed" stamped on its passport.

Cameroon is in chaos, its preparations for the World Cup thrown into confusion by a lack of funds and constant political interference. Morocco doesn't have much of a team and is expected to struggle.

But Nigeria, that's a different story.

"We've proven we're a good side with great individual players," the team's winger, Victor Ikpeba, said after Nigeria had won the African Nations Cup in Tunisia in April. "There is so much talent we could form two different sides and still be the best in Africa."

Clemens Westerhof, Nigeria's oft-embattled Dutch coach of the past five years, is somewhat more restrained in his enthusiasm. "My only aim is to produce results that will surpass Cameroon at the last World Cup finals," he said.

That in itself will be no small feat. After upsetting defending world champion Argentina in Milan in the opening match of the Italia '90 tournament, Cameroon went all the way to the quarterfinals. Only an unlucky 3-2 overtime loss to England at Naples prevented it from reaching the semifinals.

Cameroon's showing was the best ever by an African country in the World Cup, and its open and attacking style earned favorable reviews in a tournament that was almost devoid of adventurous play.

No player typified this fun-loving spirit better than Milla, who at 38 showed he could still dance through defenses with ease. His hip-swinging post-goal celebratory dances with the corner flag drew smiles from one end of Italy to the other.

Milla, Africa's player of the year in 1976 and 1990, is 42 now but still dreams of being included in Cameroon's World Cup team for 1994. Henri Michel, the country's French coach, is noncommittal, recognizing Milla's popularity with the fans and especially President Paul Biya, but also knowing that age has caught up with the player known as "the Old Lion."

Not that Yekini, Milla's heir apparent as Africa's World Cup star, is exactly a youngster.

At 30, Yekini is closer to the end of his playing career than the beginning. But his credentials as a striker are impressive. His eight goals in World Cup qualifying play for Nigeria made him the top goal-scorer in Africa's qualifying tournament. He scored another five in Tunisia to win the goal-scoring title at the African Nations Cup, the continental championships.

And he is just as prolific with his club team. Although playing for unfashionable Victoria Setubal, he leads the Portuguese League in scoring with 21 goals so far this season.

It's small wonder that Nigeria's Super Eagles believe they will fly high this summer.

There is a lot more than national pride at stake, however. Cameroon earned Africa a third World Cup berth. Nigeria has the possibility of earning it a fourth or even fifth spot in the quadrennial world championships.

Now that FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has decided to expand the tournament to 32 teams in 1998, there is competition to see just how the six continental confederations divide those extra eight places.

The Europeans have offered a plan that gives Africa, Asia, CONCACAF (the North and Central American and Caribbean region) and South America each one additional place while reserving the other four places for the continents that provide the four semifinalists in this World Cup.

Potentially, all four could go to Europe, which has not escaped the notice of the Africans and Asians. Both continental groups would like two extra places rather than one.

Much will depend, therefore, on how well Nigeria, Cameroon and Morocco do on Africa's behalf this summer and on how well South Korea and Saudi Arabia fare in the cause of Asia. Morocco and Saudi Arabia are in the same group, adding a little spice.

Cameroon is grouped with tournament favorite Brazil, Sweden and Russia. Russia--then the Soviet Union--defeated Cameroon, 4-0, in the World Cup four years ago and is unlikely to be any easier to deal with this time around. Milla or no Milla, Cameroon has a tough task ahead.

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