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Is Africa Failing?

The six African nations to represent the continent in the World Cup have had a rather underwhelming tournament on the whole: just one win in 11 matches, along with four draws. Whereas, before the tournament, we had projected between two and three African teams to progress to the knockout stages, now the figure is likely to come in at one or two. There’s even about an 8 percent chance that the continent will get shut out.

Still, let’s place a little bit more context around this. First, we should note that none of the African teams were slam dunks to advance. With the exception of longshot Algeria, everyone else was between 43 and 56 percent.

Part of this is simply that none of them looked all that impressive heading into the tournament. The highest-ranking African team in the SPI ratings heading into the tournament was Ivory Coast, which placed 14th. Elo also had Ivory Coast highest, but had them 26th; FIFA preferred Cameroon, ranking them 19th.

The African contingent would have been stronger had Egypt qualified, which has won the continental tournament three consecutive times, including earlier this year; all three ratings systems like the Egyptians, placing them between 12th and 16th. But the middling Algeria qualified instead (a good thing for the United States, by the way, because needing a win against Egypt on Wednesday would be fairly daunting.)

About six months ago, some of these teams — but particularly Ivory Coast and Cameroon — looked a bit more impressive. Côte d’Ivoire had climbed to 8th or 9th in the SPI ratings at one point, and playing on their home continent, seemed like a legitimate threat to win the whole tournament. But after a middling performance in the African Nations’ Cup, in which they draw with Burkina Faso and lost to Algeria, there were more questions about their form. Of course, let’s not dismiss the Ivorians yet — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having drawn with Portugal, and they could still get hot and go very far.

Cameroon, which is out of the tournament, had also been on a downward trajectory: their continental tournament had featured a loss to Gabon and a draw with Tunisia, among other indignities. And in 10 matches this calendar year, their only victories had been against Kenya and Zambia, who ranked 125th and 85th in the world at the time.

Several of the African teams, meanwhile, got rather tough draws. Put Ivory Coast in, say, Paraguay’s position in Group F, and they’d be overwhelming favorites to advance. But in a group with Brazil and Portugal, it will be much tougher. The hosts, South Africa, in spite of being one of the seeded teams and protected from facing the world’s elite, nevertheless drew an extremely competitive group with Mexico, Uruguay and France. And Ghana drew into the underrated Group D, and might survive it anyway.

Meanwhile, Ghana lost its best player, Michael Essian, to injury. Didier Drogba recovered more quickly than expected for Ivory Coast and came on as a late substitute against Portugal, although it remains to be seen whether he’ll be at full strength or even allowed to play.

Really, it’s misleading to say that the continent as a whole has disappointed. Ghana have performed better than expected under difficult circumstances. Ivory Coast’s tournament has barely begun. Algeria, of whom little was expected, drew with England. The hosts had their moments against Mexico, if things got out of hand against Uruguay; although they almost certainly can’t advance, they won’t really be looked on as disappointments if they win or have a well-played draw against France.

That leaves Nigeria and Cameroon. Cameroon have been disorganized: their offense didn’t show up against Japan, nor their defense against Denmark — although they actually dominated possession time in both matches and probably deserved at least one draw, if not a win. Nigeria has been the team for me which has looked truly rudderless, although they retain an outside chance of advancing should they beat South Korea.

But this really isn’t enough evidence to convict the entire continent. It’s been a disappointing tournament for Nigeria and Cameroon — not for Africa.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.