After mixed fortunes at the World Cup & time now passed long enough to reflect properly, John Burn-Murdoch looks to the future for African international football.
Just over two years ago I spent several months coaching football in Port Elizabeth’s townships with the Umzingisi foundation, a South Africa based organization aimed at facilitating progressive social change through sport. The foundation’s flagship project is its School of Sporting Excellence, where the most promising young athletes from the schools of Port Elizabeth’s townships are offered the chance to receive high level sports coaching while simultaneously attending life skills classes. In this way, participating students not only have the chance to further both their technical and theoretical understanding of their chosen sport, but also receive invaluable guidance on some of the key issues facing them in their day-to-day lives. The holistic nature of the life skills classes encompasses difficult topics such as HIV/Aids, drug abuse and crime as well as teaching the students how to deal with money, write a CV or apply for a job. The results of Umzingisi’s work are apparent to see in the precociously talented – and very well grounded – young adults that it produces.
South Africa, however, is not the only African country where youth development is afforded such importance and Ghana are widely seen as the continent’s leading lights in the field. Winning the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup was a just reward for the efforts put into promoting youth football in Ghana, and the inclusion of a number of members of that victorious side in the senior World Cup squad underlines the Ghanaian FA’s emphasis on looking to the future.
In addition to their work with youth development, Ghana have benefited from an impressive level of stability within the national team set-up. Going into the World Cup Milovan Rajevac had been Ghana’s coach for two years – a lengthy spell for an African national side – leading them to a runners-up spot in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations along the way. This allowed him to oversee the progress of the youth team and gradually ease players through into the senior squad. His counterparts at Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa on the other hand did not have that luxury, with only Algeria's Rabah Saadane in charge for over a year.
South Africa went into the summer’s tournament as hosts and with an enormous wave of popular support behind them. Nevertheless, the task of preparing the players for the big kick off cannot have been easy. Carlos Alberto Parreira, the man tasked with leading Bafana Bafana out of the group stages, was in his second spell as head coach of the national side in the space of three years. After allegedly falling out with the South African FA the Brazilian resigned in early 2008, only to find himself back in the job with eight months to go before the tournament began and having missed the Confederations Cup, his best opportunity to gauge the quality of his squad against quality opposition before the World Cup began. In the end South Africa put in a highly creditable performance and were close to progressing to the knockout stages. Nevertheless, one can only wonder what might have been had they taken the same ‘bottom-up’ reforms as Ghana rather than simply appointing a big name coach and hoping for instant inspiration.
Nigeria, formerly a giant of African football, have been in something of a steady a decline in recent years, and fans of the Super Eagles have been quick to apportion blame in all directions. Conspiracy theories abound in relation to the ‘real’ ages of certain players, while tactics and selection policy are routinely questioned. In South Africa, however, most of the talking was done on the pitch. After Vincent Enyeama spared their blushes in the opener, the reasons for Nigeria’s failure to progress can be attributed largely to two unconnected – yet similarly infuriating – events; first the sending off of Sani Kaita which turned the Greece match on its head, and secondly Yakubu’s unfathomable miss in the final group game, where a win would have taken Lars Lagerback’s side through behind Argentina. Although things could easily have turned out differently for Nigeria last summer, one has to question the actions of the Nigerian FA in the lead up to the tournament. Having guided his side comfortably to a qualification berth for the World Cup, and followed this with a 3rd place finish in the Cup of African Nations of the same year, Shaibu Amodu would surely have hoped to lead his countrymen out in the summer, but in a sadly unsurprising move, Nigeria’s bigwigs demoted Amodu to the B-team, bringing in Lagerback in his place. The move to appoint Lagerback was widely criticized, with rumors rife that the Swede and his representatives had bribed their way into the post, and with Lagerback having only recently stepped down from his position at Sweden following their failed qualification campaign, the rumors are hardly dispelled. Whether or not the continuity that Amodu would have provided would have made Yakubu score from 2 yards out is unknown, but the upheaval caused by the backroom maneuvers can hardly have helped preparation for such a huge tournament.
Cameroon’s backroom preparations for the tournament were similarly disjointed, with no fewer than five managers taking the reins in the four years leading up to South Africa. Nevertheless, when their World Cup finals campaign got underway, erstwhile coach Paul Le Guen had been at the rudder for over ten months, instilling an atmosphere of self-belief into his players. Unfortunately for Le Guen, his side looked to have lost their pre-tournament edge when proceedings began, and they became the first side to be eliminated from the tournament following narrow defeats to Japan and Denmark. It is difficult to point to a single factor which explains Cameroon’s failure, but an over-reliance on Samuel Eto’o and a lack of a truly incisive creative midfielder would go some way to answering the question. Too often Eto’o’s team mates appeared duty-bound to pass to the Inter Milan striker, often at the expense of better options. Elsewhere, a lack of subtlety in midfield became apparent in the closing stages of each of their opening two fixtures, with the likes of Stephane M’Bia resorting to shots from distance as ideas ran out. On this occasion it would be unfair to blame the failure of a former African powerhouse on managerial changes, yet one wonders whether, given more time at the helm, Le Guen could have dealt with these flaws and built a more versatile and imaginative team.
Algeria's route to the finals was somewhat unique, as they played a one-off match against rivals Egypt to decide Africa's final qualifier after the two sides finished their campaigns with exactly the same record. Having been at the helm for over two years, manager Rabah Saadane had built a well organized side with a miserly defense - the Fennecs only conceded more than one goal on two occasions in a run of eleven competitive games leading up to the tournament. Playing at their first World Cup for 24 years, Algeria came into the tournament looking to give a good account of themselves and avoid embarrassment. Narrow defeats to Slovenia and the USA - the latter through a goal in the dying seconds - and a very respectable draw against a lackluster England side saw Algeria finish bottom of their group, but with their pride more than intact, as illustrated by the mass celebrations following the England game.
Côte d'Ivoire, Africa's sixth and final representatives in action in June, also fell at the first hurdle and initial signs suggested a lack of managerial continuity could have been to blame once again. Having guided the national side to qualification for both the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup without picking up a single defeat along the way, Bosnian boss Vahid Halihodzic looked secure in his post and appeared to have built a strong and tight-knit squad. Following a hugely disappointing quarterfinal exit in the continental championships, however, the former Yugoslavian international was unceremoniously dismissed. In a shock move, Sven Goran Eirksson was brought in as his replacement, having relatively recently been dismissed from his post at Mexico for struggling to qualify for the very tournament he was now set to lead The Elephants into. Following a promising draw against European heavyweights Portugal, Côte d'Ivoire lost to Brazil, and Portugal's point against the South Americans put Eriksson's men out of the tournament. At first glance, elimination in the opening round for a side containing the likes of Drogba, Kalou and the Touré brothers constitutes a huge underachievement, yet on closer examination there was little more The Elephants could have done.
Drawn against one of the pre-tournament favorites in Dunga's Brazil and knockout stage connoisseurs Portugal, Eriksson's men were presented with undoubtedly the toughest draw for any second seeded team in South Africa. Although the Portuguese had struggled through qualification, only reaching the finals via a play-off, they have established themselves in recent years as a team who are at their best in the big tournaments, and with the likes of former Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo among their ranks they were always going to be a force to be reckoned with. Ultimately the order in which group matches were played hurt Côte d'Ivoire. Had Portugal faced Brazil earlier, Kaka and co would no doubt have been keen to assert their status as group favorites by beating their Latin cousins, leaving them to play out a draw with The Elephants instead. While critics may point to the lack of urgency shown in the latter stages of their opener against Portugal, Eriksson could be understandably satisfied with the point considering the Iberians could easily have won had Ronaldo's early shot flown in rather than rebounding away off the upright.
One take-home point from the summer is that there is little evidence to support the overused line that "African teams always under perform on the world stage". Yes, only one of the continent's six representatives made it to the second round, but considering the circumstances for each side individually this is not the shocking revelation that it first appears to be. The hosts put in a creditable performance, Algeria largely held their own against superior opposition, only a glaring miss kept Nigeria from the last sixteen and Côte d'Ivoire had an impossibly tough draw. Only Cameroon's zero-points finish could be labeled as poor, and even then The Indomitable Lions were dead and buried following narrow defeats in their opening matches where results could easily have gone the other way.
Nevertheless; fans, players and non-playing staff across the continent will no doubt be looking admiringly at Ghana's glittering example, hoping to replicate the Black Stars' successes in the future. Nigeria are best placed to follow their example, with their under-17 side finishing as runners up in the last U-17 World Cup. If, through managerial stability and rigorous planning, this crop of starlets can be eased up through the ranks and blended with older, more experienced players, Nigeria stand every chance of making a mark on the 2018 World Cup - if not four years earlier in Brazil. For the likes of Cameroon and South Africa, the road is longer and a patient approach will be needed. The difficulty will be in convincing bigwigs and fans alike that in order to progress in the long term, short term success must be afforded less importance when judging the effectiveness of the national set-up. As with club football, and arguably throughout the non sporting world as well, a culture of short termism is rife, with any level of immediate success (or profits) prioritized over long term advancement. If these attitudes can be put to one side, African football has a fantastic chance to take great strides forward. Hopefully one day talk of African teams underperforming will refer to a lack of their presence in quarter-finals, not a failure to advance past the group stage.
To read more from John you can read his excellent blog http://jburnmurdoch.wordpress.com/ or follow him on twitter twitter.com/jbm64