Football: the work on getting Africa back into the top tier starts at home
African countries who wish to compete at the top level need to fix grass roots problems, not just scout European leagues for diaspora talent.
Remember Cameroon beating Argentina, Senegal beating France, or Nigeria beating both Brazil and Argentina in the OIympics? Those days are fading into history.
And they’re not coming back soon judging by the latest African Cup of Nations (CAN) which wound up on 19 July with an uninspiring final when Algeria won by a fluke goal against Senegal.
True, Algeria’s defence was solid throughout the tournament and their attack was strong enough to score 13 goals. But the team’s performance in the final was dull and defensive. Senegal played more entertaining football but poor tactics let the team down, throwing away many chances to even the score.
This year the CAN competition was expanded to 24 teams. Many, including myself, thought it would lower quality.
But there were good surprises: Madagascar topped a group with the mighty Nigeria. The plucky Squirrels of Benin from a third-placed group stage finish managed to knock out the Atlas Lions of Morocco, despite their seasoned manager Hervé Renard.
Benin and Madagascar showed themselves to be teams greater than the sum of their parts with impressive collective talent. Maybe outsiders such as Seychelles, Mauritius and Eritrea will follow in their wake
Yet the established football powers such as Morocco, Egypt and Ghana had disappointing tournaments. They lost their aura of invincibility. Their stale and unimaginative tactics meant they could not take advantage of their impressive squads.
What is going wrong?
In an increasingly globalised football economy, returnees are bolstering the ranks of African football. The two managers Djamel Belmadi (Algeria) and Aliou Cissé (Sénégal) who faced each in Friday’s final grew up in the same Paris suburb.
Many of their players such as Riyad Mahrez, M’Baye Niang and Kalidou Koulibaly were born and raised outside Africa.
Certainly, returnees in coaching and playing have boosted quality.
However, Africa’s national football associations are now focusing less on the local leagues. They would prefer to poach European prospects to fill their national teams.
Yes, these players are often better than their local counterparts.
But what cost does this short term thinking have?
If investments in football at the grass roots was increased, the gap would narrow. A stronger local game means that African countries will have a more sustainable talent pool on which to call.
And the money is there. Television revenues were the main driver for expansion of the tournament. Following the Union of European Football Associations, the Confederation of African Football is boosting its earnings from marketing and television rights.
Against the backdrop of corruption scandals in Fédération Internationale de Football Association, there is concern that higher revenues is going to line pockets rather than develop talent.
Take Africa’s goal-keeping problem.
Goalkeepers had a bad tournament this year, pointing to a particular weakness in African teams. African goalkeepers have struggled to reach the level of outfield players such as Mo Salah, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto’o, and George Weah..
An exception is the brilliant Cameroonian keeper, André Onana. This year, Tunisia used all three of its keepers in the tournament; each of them made a horrendous mistake.
Elvis Chipezeze of Zimbabwe, however, hit new depths. He gave away two goals and a penalty, which was converted, to Democratic Republic of Congo.
Goalkeeping is a glaring weakness in the African game. If corrected, African teams could close the gap with South America and Europe.
But it will take investment in local teams.
So what does it look like on the ground? Ghana’s domestic game, for example, is in disarray.
The Normalization Committee set up by FIFA in the wake of the Nyantakyi scandal is due to finish its work at the end of September and handover to a new national association.
Until African leagues start acting like proper caretakers of the game, neither the goal-keeping nor the all the other myriad elements that make up a cup-winning side will go right.