By Mark Gleeson
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - If Senegal fail to hold off Colombia in their last group game on Thursday and are knocked out of the World Cup in Russia, all five African representatives will have been eliminated, in the worst return for the continent since the 1982 finals in Spain.
Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia are already eliminated, and if Senegal lose to Colombia in Samara in Group H, and Japan avoid defeat against Poland at the same time, Africa's interest in Russia will come to an abrupt end.
In every tournament since the 1986 finals in Mexico, at least one African country has made it through to the knockout stages – even when there were only three African teams in the field.
Africa's allocation was increased to five places when the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in France in 1998, and when South Africa hosted the 2010 finals there were six African sides.
Ghana, riding a wave of popular support, got within a whisker of a semi-final place at that tournament, but the others all bombed out early.
Algeria and Nigeria advanced in Brazil four years ago, but the latest batch of African sides have produced a poorer return.
Morocco drew some positive reviews but picked up only one point, while Nigeria lost out late in a drama-filled match against Argentina on Tuesday.
Egypt and Tunisia, however, were out of contention after just two games.
Senegal, who have four points from their first two games, can save the situation. But even if they progress, the latest batch of performances will further mute calls for greater representation at future tournaments.
With 54 member countries, Africa has only one less nation than UEFA, European football’s governing body, but Europe has the lion's share of teams at the World Cup – 14 including host Russia.
The expanded 48-team World Cup set to be held in north America in eight years’ time will see Africa getting nine places, still far fewer than Europe's 16 slots.
African countries used to point to the imbalance as unfair.
But this argument has been quietly abandoned as results have failed to back calls for increased representation. The continent's performance in Russia so far looks unlikely to change that situation.
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Hugh Lawson)