In 1977, Pelé predicted an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. It was and remains a bold prediction: it wasn’t even until the following year that an African country, Tunisia, actually won a match at the tournament. Over the following decade, African football experienced a steady progression, culminating in Cameroon’s near-miss in 1990, when they came within a Gary Lineker penalty of reaching the semi-finals.
The quarter-finals, matched by Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010, remain an insurmountable hurdle for African teams. For 28 years, this football-mad continent of two billion people has been totally stagnant.
A deep well of talent
Given the quality of the players produced by Africa in that time, this is nothing short of a tragedy. George Weah, Abedi Pelé, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré speak to a deep well of talent. When given the right facilities, nurturing and coaching, African players are more than a match for their European and South American peers. So why is an African side yet to reach a World Cup final, and why, in 2018, have they failed even to qualify from the group stage?
Part of the problem is sheer incompetence. Corruption and mismanagement is endemic to African football, which stifles development and investment; it’s hard for vital football infrastructure to improve when funds are squirrelled away by officials and apparatchiks. A striking example is Kenya, whose national team shot up the FIFA rankings after a substantial loan from the Kenyan Premier League in 2008. The KPL invested in new coaches and facilities, but the work was undone the following year when the Kenyan FA wrested back control, dismantled the new structure and sent the team plummeting down the table back to square one – worse still, the loan was left unpaid.
Corruption also affects the continent’s flagship tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations. The competition is hampered at every turn by poor planning, inadequate pitches, confusing rules and a lack of infrastructure. It’s also typically of a very poor quality, with teams rarely living up to expectations. This can reach laughable levels, such as when South Africa failed to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations because they didn’t understand the rules for separating teams level on points, playing for a draw against a feeble Sierra Leone side when they needed a win to guarantee a place in the finals.
Europe part of the problem
Predictably, European club football is also part of the problem. The African game is rooted in stereotypes, specifically that of the fast and muscular yet ill-disciplined and defensively-weak player. As a consequence, when clubs in England, France and Portugal go out in search of young African talent, they privilege players who fit this mould, telegraphing them towards a game that relies on strength, rather than skill. With technical players denied a footballing education, the African international game suffers as a result of teams having to rely on individuals with a relatively limited set of attributes.
Can we blame racism? It’s not unreasonable to suggest that European expectations of African players may rely to some extent on the age-old caricature of black men as aggressive and unintelligent. It’s perhaps inevitable that this will change as the continent develops its own football infrastructure, and starts to produce its players independently.
There are signs of progress. At this year’s World Cup, Senegal was defensively competent, and blessed with skilful players like Sadio Mané. Better yet, their manager is Sengalese, still a rarity among African sides. Alio Cissé has become something of a sex symbol, but his qualifications go far beyond his looks. As a footballer, he plied his trade as a defensive midfielder in France and England, and was named captain of the national side during their successful 2002 World Cup run. Since his retirement, Cissé trained for the top job as Senegal’s U-23 manager, which meant he was uniquely immersed in the Senegalese game when he took over the national team in 2015.
There isn’t a single flourishing African foot league
This should encourage other African nations. Unlike the journeymen Europeans employed by most national teams, Senegal-born Cissé has a understanding of national football, its strengths and challenges, where the best players emerge, and what they need to succeed at home and abroad. He can help inform the development of Senegalese football in a way Vahid Halilhodžić or Héctor Cúper cannot.
But this is just the first step. European clubs help develop fantastic African players, but they’re understandably not interested in doing much more to develop the local game. The trouble is, there isn’t a single flourishing African foot league. Football clubs therefore need to professionalise, start paying their players regularly, to build new pitches and better training facilities, and establish youth academies that actually keep talent within the continent. Local football associations and governments interested in developing the game should do better too, ensuring that investment reaches the grassroots level and that corrupt officials are rooted out. As with so many of Africa’s problems, weak institutions are a persistent barrier to development.
There’s a long way to go before Pelé’s dream is realised. Progress has been depressingly slow, and despite a glut of talented players, African football remains poor-quality, badly-organised, and blighted by feeble infrastructure and weak institutions. Until Africa is allowed to put its faith in local clubs and organisations and establish better, native youth programmes, it will never solve these challenges. Their are scant signs of improvement: already, Africa has been surpassed by Asia, a continent with a far less storied football heritage. If I’m to see a World Cup champion from Africa, the continent needs to get its act together – and fast.
Editorial credit: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com