7 Changes African Football Must Make to Become More Competitive at a World Cup
Despite having two teams reach the World Cup knockout stages for the first time in history, the showing of Africa’s teams in Brazil has been received with much negativity.
While the performances of Algeria and Nigeria received deserved praise, their success was overshadowed by the missed opportunities of the Ivory Coast and Ghana and the controversy-ravaged summer of Cameroon.
Once again, regrettably, the world tunes in to talk of African football being undermined by bonus disputes and administrative problems, rather than to celebrate the talent of the teams or their star men.
While it is important not to suggest that all African teams encounter the same problems, or that the same solutions will work for all similar issues, this article attempts to outline seven changes that would help to make the continent more competitive at the World Cup.
Similarly, it is important to acknowledge that there is no “magic bullet” for African sides. Some of the continent’s problems are deeply rooted within structures and systems and may take generations to overcome.
Naturally, the example of Algeria, who impressed so profoundly in Brazil, provides a convenient template for the continent’s other sides to follow.
Improve the Domestic League
The United States have been one of the surprise packages and, indeed, the star performers at the 2014 World Cup. Despite being pooled in one of the so-called “Groups of Death,” Jurgen Klinsmann’s side beat Ghana and drew with Portugal to advance to the knockout stages.
While the Stars and Stripes have benefitted from German-born talent, it was notable that almost half of their squad, including key players Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley play in Major League Soccer.
The once-derided MLS has come on leaps and bounds over the last few years and is now the 12th-strongest league in the world according to ELO.
As outlined by Jan Lin of FourFourTwo, “Domestic football leagues have historically existed to give local talents a platform to be unearthed and polished for the benefit of the national set-up.”
The improvements of Major League Soccer have encouraged better overseas players to join the league and increased interest in the sport, thus improving both the quantity and the quality of the United States’ talent pool.
Ian Hughes of BBC Sport believes that the same has happened with Algeria, where “a stronger professional league” has benefited the national side and provided the basis for the success of the 2014 vintage.
This is, obviously, easier said than done, but if domestic federations can navigate the allure provided by European football and help to turn supporters back onto the local leagues, then ultimately, the national sides will benefit.
These divisions need to be managed and governed well and made more appealing places for both players—who, in Nigeria for example, often face financial concerns—and for fans.
Intelligent investment will lead to an improved product, which in turn can lead to greater interest, sustained investment and, if governance is astute, improved, sustainable grassroots development.
Exploit the Diaspora
African teams have often lost some of their best players to European nations. The classic example is France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team of whom three key players (Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane) were all eligible for African nations.
While the trend may be steadily changing, it remains the case that for every Victor Moses and Ishak Belfodil (who played for England and France U-21s before choosing Nigeria and Algeria respectively), there is a Wilfred Zaha, who was born in Abidjan but has been capped by the Three Lions.
To improve their chances at the World Cup, African sides need to exploit their diasporas (that is to say, their dispersion of their populations across the world).
Again, Algeria provides a fine template, the majority of Fennecs who travelled to Brazil were born in France. This is nothing new, the Senegalese team that left such an indelible mark on the 2002 World Cup were also, largely, sons of the metropole.
Despite the tangible benefits that exist from tapping into the diaspora, some managers' hesitance to do this has been frustrating. Stephen Keshi may have called up Leon Balogun, but players such as Kenneth Otigba, Tiago Ilori and Derek Osede risk slipping into the hands of other nations unless efforts are made with an eye on the future.
Volker Finke, of Cameroon, has acknowledged the importance of the diaspora and has actively looked to include Barcelona prodigies Frank Bagnack and Jean Marie Dongou in his plans, tying them to the Indomitable Lions from an early age.
Beyond giving nations a greater quantity of options, incorporating the diaspora also encourages managers to turn to players who have perhaps enjoyed an atypical football education or who bring different, varied qualities to the national side.
Encourage a Meritocracy
While Sabri Lamouchi departed the Ivory Coast top job having failed to take the Elephants beyond the group stage, he deserves credit for being bold in shunning some of the veterans.
He made the strong decision ahead of the tournament to phase-out the likes of Romaric and Jean-Jacques Gosso-Gosso, while he bravely started with Wilfried Bony ahead of Didier Drogba in the Elephants’ opening World Cup fixture.
Lamouchi picked the side based largely on merit rather than reputation. The same can be said for Vahid Halilhodzic and Algeria.
But can it for Africa’s other nations?
Volker Finke started with Samuel Eto’o, who, admittedly, carries great emotional weight, but could find no place for Vincent Aboubakar, one of the most deadly forwards in Ligue 1 last season.
Similarly, Stephen Keshi persevered with John Obi Mikel as the team’s central creative influence despite the fact that the Chelsea midfielder looked uninspired and disinterested for large spells of the summer.
Finally, to Ghana, where Kwesi Appiah shoehorned into the side many of the big-name underachievers, disregarding some of the players who had worked so hard to get the Black Stars to Brazil. This led to Kwadwo Asamoah, arguably the team's best player, featuring out on the left flank. Is this really playing to one's strengths?
Lamouchi may have failed, but he at least showed the continent’s sides the way in terms of playing players based on merit rather than reputation.
Eradicate the 'Bad Apples'
The flip side of the previous slide, the encouraging of a meritocracy, is to eradicate the culture of individuality that exists within one or two prominent national sides.
Reports of Samuel Eto’o or John Obi Mikel influencing team decision-making, of Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng throwing their toys out of the pram and lashing out (both verbally and physically) ahead of the Black Stars’ final group game with Portugal, demonstrate a worrying trend of player power.
Cameroon’s dismal tournament and horrific lack of discipline against Croatia unveiled the lack of respect or conscience within the squad. After the game, in response to allegations of fraud, a Fecafoot statement denounced “seven bad apples” who had brought the Indomitable Lions into disrepute.
While the actions of these players and those of Ghana can never be condoned, the federations must take the blame for being too lax on this culture of individuality and not coming down hard enough on compromised loyalty.
In welcoming back into the team the likes of Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng and the Ayew brothers, maybe Kwesi Appiah admitted that the Black Stars needed their high-profile players to succeed in Brazil. Maybe he was right, but welcoming them back with open arms, and ignoring the fact that they have previously turned their back on the nation, sends out the wrong message.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Samuel Eto’o have also spent time away from their national side, only to return when the bright lights of the World Cup drew near.
Would this be tolerated by Vahid Halilhodzic, for example? Would such uncommitted players be welcomed into his Algerian collective?
In accepting these players—both their departures in the first place, and their returns—African sides are tacitly indulging the climate of player power that so derailed the tournament progress of two of the continent’s Brazil-bound quintet.
A Transparency Balance
Once again, Africa’s World Cup was hamstrung by “administrative problems,” that one-size-fits-all term that covers a multitude of sins.
While much of the post-World Cup criticism of Africa’s performance has called for “transparency,” it’s not totally guaranteed that this solves the continent’s problems. Ghana, for example, have had problems with bonuses in the past, but by keeping them in-house, they have managed to avert the kind of controversy and widespread criticism that they have encountered this summer.
Transparency for CAF’s administration, and that of the individual federations, might reveal a lot of open wounds, but the subsequent avalanche of controversy and criticism might not bring any tangible benefits.
Rather, I believe that problems are identified and solved better through “accountability” as much or even more than “transparency”.
The continent’s federations will improve not simply by revealing the problems, but by identifying them and cultivating a climate in which they can be worked through and improved. African football must fashion an environment where administration is for the good of the game—both for players and fans—not for the enrichment of those holding public posts.
Getting there will be some voyage, but ultimately, it will lead to a stable and more verdant climate for Africa’s national sides.
Resolve Issues of Finance Before Tournaments Begin
Issues of finance and African federations are easy to criticise but much harder to solve. While I don’t wish to wade into the minutiae of each individual case, I believe it is important to acknowledge that there is no one villain here and there is no one simple solution.
Certainly, Boateng and Muntari were wrong to behave as they did, but their grievances were born from a genuine sense of betrayal and/or mistreatment.
The narrative of “greedy African players” is far too simplified, far too bland to form a starting point for discussion.
Similarly, the theme of deceptive and malevolent federations is equally ignorant of both the history of the issue and the logistical, practical conditions to be acknowledged.
The wish of Ghana’s players to receive the money in person, in cash, for example, appears extravagant as an isolated incident, but when considered in context, it is perhaps easier to understand.
The Black Stars’ decision to have formal agreements for player bonuses moving forward is perhaps a sad indictment of the current state of affairs and the breakdown between player and federation, but it is, at least, a step toward the kind of accountability that the continent’s sides will benefit from.
Intelligent Managerial Appointments
Naturally, this is another “solution” that is far easier said than done and which looks like a self-evident thing to say in hindsight.
Africa, however, has a collective history of ill-conceived managerial appointments that have had a detrimental effect on the performance of national teams at major tournaments.
Take, for example, the last World Cup.
Before the 2010 event, both Nigeria and the Ivory Coast ditched the managers who had guided them to South Africa, replacing them with Lars Lagerback and Sven-Goran Eriksson (at great expense) ahead of the competition.
It was little surprise that both sides were eliminated in the first round. The two Swedes had little sensibility for the African game, had little time to adapt to the new conditions of the job or to learn about their squads and had tactical approaches that didn’t necessarily “fit” with the players available to them.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened. Stephen Keshi qualified Togo for the 2006 World Cup—the Sparrow Hawks’ first-ever appearance—only to be replaced by Otto Pfister ahead of the competition.
The German manager promptly oversaw three defeats.
While (mercifully) none of Africa’s five managers were fired ahead of the 2014 event, the quintet of federations have been guilty of some perverse and hard-to-rationalise decisions.
Sabri Lamouchi was a dubious and controversial choice to take over the Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation back in 2012 and did very little over the following two years to suggest that he was up to the task.
Similarly, Kwesi Appiah has rarely looked strong enough to navigate the various pitfalls of managing Ghana and did not enhance his reputation in Brazil. The Black Stars boss has, however, (somewhat surprisingly) retained his job and even been rewarded with a new contract.
Simultaneously, Stephen Keshi and Vahid Halilhodzic, despite guiding their nations to the last 16, are seeking new employers, with both complaining about being treated badly by the Nigerian federation and by Algerian journalists respectively.
Federations must begin to make intelligent and well-thought-through managerial appointments. There needs to be at least some semblance of logic or a direction behind their decisions, and certainly in the case of some West African nations, coaches must be judged on their approach, their qualities and their suitability, rather than their nationality.