African football’s melting pot of confusion ahead of Qatar 2022

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The FIFA World Cup euphoria is, once again, building up ahead of the world’s biggest soccer extravaganza set to take place in Qatar later this year. Five African nations, Senegal, Ghana, Morocco, Cameroon and Tunisia will be carrying Africa’s hopes going into the quadrennial tournament.

However, it is the outcome of performances by those African teams that Africans will be most concerned about.

That to this day, no African team has ever managed to reach the last four stages of the tournament, is a well-documented fact and it is for this reason that every four years fingers are crossed to see which African nation might just break that record and at least reach the semifinals. And this time around the script is still the same.

What recent history tells us

Recent history does very little to paint a picture of hope for Africa. 20 years ago, in Korea and Japan, all African nations returned to the continent with tails between their legs after they were all eliminated in the first round of the tournament.

In 2006, Ghana seemed to have it better when they made the Last 16 but fell 3-0 to Brazil. It was Ghana again four years later, in South Africa, who got out of the group stages while four Africa teams were once again dumped out of the preliminary stages of the tournament.

The Black Stars went on to reach the quarterfinals, but failed to go past that hurdle like no African team ever has in the history of the tournament.

Nigeria and Algeria broke out of the group stages in Brazil in 2014, but as usual were knocked out in the Last 16 by France and Germany, respectively.

2018 was a repeat of the Korea and Japan story with all African teams eliminated in the preliminary stages of the tournament and returned to the continent with tails between their legs.

It is this history that paints a bleak picture for Africa going to Qatar.

How ready are the African teams?

The recent Africa Cup of Nations was supposed to provide a good measure of Africa’s readiness for Qatar but on closer look, it only adds to the confusion regarding these teams’ preparedness for the tournament.

Egypt, who reached the finals of the tournament and narrowly lost to Senegal on penalties and would thus be regarded as the second-best team in Africa, have failed to qualify for Qatar.

Ghana, on the other hand, one of the most deplorable sides in Cameroon having been knocked in the group stages and losing to the likes of Comoros, will be one of the teams entrusted with African hopes on the world’s biggest stages against the best on the planet.

This does not help give an indication of Africa’s readiness.

Hosts Cameroon were far from convincing struggling against some of the minnows of the tournament like Cape Verde, Comoros, and Gambia and eventually being knocked the first time they faced a reputable opponent in Egypt who will not be traveling to Qatar.

Tunisia were even worse, losing two of their three group stage matches and only qualifying for the Last 16 as one of the best thirds. But the terrible showing would not count against one of the most fancied, high-flying side, Nigeria, in the Last 16 bring the Super Eagles down to walk in a shocking result – indicating the unpredictability of African teams.

Despite Nigeria’s great showing in the group stages, winning three out of three and collecting all nine points on offer, they could not go past a poor Tunisian side and failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Even Morocco who lost to Egypt in the quarterfinals never sent out a strong message that they were delivering one of Africa’s hopes of at least reaching the semifinals.

Eventual winners and perhaps Africa’s best bet, Senegal, started the tournament scrappily and got better with as it progressed, eventually beating The Pharaohs of Egypt on penalties in the final – however, far from world-beaters status.

This confusion indicates the absence of readiness from the African brigade.

The question is: Where is Africa getting it wrong?

Where is Africa getting it wrong?

“We can discuss the line-ups and all that but it is at the level of embracing our own identity and culture where we are getting it wrong,” says former Mamelodi Sundowns Development Coach, Zipho Dlangalala.

Dlangalala was part of the successful youth project by Mamelodi Sundowns that produced more than 20 professional players including the likes of Keagan Dolly and Siyanda Xulu.

He says it is only nations who have embraced their culture and identity that go on to dominate in world football and without those attributes chances of success are almost dashed.

“We can no longer talk about formations, systems, preparations, possession, etc., all that is well documented. All teams know how to play. All teams’ formations and systems, and any other detail are well researched and studied by the opponents as much as the team would know it,” he says.

He describes a World Cup tournament as nothing more than a “battle of the cultures.”

“It’s a battle of the cultures. There is no doubt that the team with the strongest conviction on its playing philosophy, will emerge at the end.”

What is culture and how important is it?

Malcom Little, popular known as Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist, who was assassinated in 1965, once said about culture, “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own identity, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfil itself.”

Dlangalala is of the view that this is where Africa has lost the plot.

“In Africa, we seem to think that our answer is in the number of players we can send to go compete in Europe and the more the players you have playing in Europe, the better the chances you have of dominating the world. But that is not backed up by data. Research will show you that merely sending ‘identityless’ players to Europe will do more harm than good, resulting in black players who are unAfrican in the way they perceive and play the game,” says Dlangalala.

He argues that improving the standard of the game on the African continued and with more financial investment to keep players in Africa could eventually encourage the embracing of the different African cultures and eventually improve the game on the continent.

“During the 2010 FIFA World, the world was exposed to Vuvuzelas and so on and we were told they were making noise and that is exactly what happened to our game. We were told our own playing of the game was not good. It was called a circus. Our skillful players were told not to hold on to the ball long and to play direct football, long and high and we internalised all of that thereby overriding our own Africanness in how to play the game. That is why when we have to go to the World Cup which I regard as the battle of the culture African teams struggle to make any impact because they are cultureless and at best have adopted foreign cultures,” elaborates Dlangalala.

The non-culture syndrome

In 2006, the World Cup was won by Italy. In the Serie A, (20 of 20) 100%, were local coaches. The national team was dominated by players from Juventus.

In 2010, it was Spain that won it. In the La Liga, (17 of 20) 85%, were local coaches. The national team was dominated by players from Barcelona, as many as 7 in some games, and captained by the same club captain, Carles Puyol.

In 2014, in Brazil, Germany won the tournament. In the Bundesliga, (13 of 18) 75%, were local coaches. The national team was dominated by players from Bayern Munich and captained by the same club captain, Phillip Lahm.

“That aspect brings together a number of elements that are needed for consistent performance and success at the high level. It kind of assures, excellence,” says Dlangalala.

This is not the picture of African football which is dominated by coaches from Europe at both club and national team levels.

A closer analysis of African football reveals that African players have lost their predatory mentality, which was imminent with sharp dribbling, tricky manoeuvres and quick acceleration whenever necessary. Those traits have been replaced by predictable and no-risk feeble answers to situations on the field of play. Dribbling past an opponent in a one-on-one situation thus creating tactical advantage was something extremely rare in the African game.

More and more African players seem to be frightened to take initiative or improvise. Everything is stereotyped and ‘rationalised’ under the ‘no frills, no tricks, safety first’ survival formula.

It is obvious that the vast majority of African players do not have their playing skills developed at the level of exquisite detail, sophistication and improvisation as it is mainly displayed by the South American and few European teams. As a result of such technical handicap frustration and negative thinking led to excessive aggression and costly fouls that did more harm to the African teams.

“No one does well at that level, unless they play within their own culture. Each team that advances to later stages has a clearly defined style or philosophy. That is their culture. Africa and South Africa, in particular, is suffering from this non-culture syndrome. The Afcon and the CAF club competitions are typical examples of this non-culture football.”

‘Physicality’ is out of fashion  

Before his passing in 2016, former Kaizer Chiefs Coach, Ted Dumitru, known for his vast research in African football lamented the move by African football towards physicality, pointing out that physicality was out of fashion.

He said at the time, “Some years back, studies, research, technical analyses and statistics did not play any major role in the way football was played or developed in Africa. Today, the story is vastly different. Precise information about the local environment, biological frame and specific predispositions of African players allow us to see their strengths, potential and what could be the best approach for their football.”

He described the ideal African football as based on fluent passing, patient possession and quick attacking actions – something that was last seen with the production of players like Jay-Jay Okocha, Doctor Khumalo, George Weah, Steven Pienaar, Roger Feutmba to name but a few.

Wrong coaching concepts in Africa

Dumitru concluded years back, that the only realistic conclusion is that with the current level of players’ quality superior results are simply not possible.

He noted that for the past twenty years or so, the number of coaching qualifications and courses had been vastly increased and the youth development programmes were mushrooming throughout the continent and yet there were no results to match the potential and expectations.

“The big conundrum is how can African football’s declining standards persist despite all the development projects initiated by FIFA, CAF and UEFA? Is the technical assistance offered to Africa by FIFA through CAF and CAF itself useful and efficient enough to produce qualitative changes in the game? Or are all these interventions by Fifa somehow void of relevancy and compatibility? Are the technical and coaching solutions developed and used in other game environments, e.g., European football, providing the complete or even partial answers to the needs and conditions of African countries? Isn’t it correct to assume that if, for example, the concept and methods used to develop and train players in England, France, Holland, Germany, etc, as currently recommended to the continent do not reflect the immense diversity and specificity of bio-social players’ profile and environmental conditions of African countries? This would then explain why African football cannot benefit or progress from such misplaced methodologies?” he explained.

He proposed Africa research its own specific coach education which could maximise the special and unique qualities of Africa as the solution to Africa’s problems.

“Undeniably, the concept and methodology currently used in the development of the vast majority of African youth and the playing mentality, in general, in the continent are incompatible with the objective of producing advanced, competitive and specifically African football. All sources of reliable information in this regard, from East to West and South to North of Africa, concur with this conclusion. There are very few exceptions where richer clubs or academies manage to put up some reasonable programmes for youth development but considering the massive need for large and systematic development in the whole of Africa, these minor projects only serve as a placebo,” he wrote at the time.

As John Howard once said, “I don’t think it is wrong, racist, immoral or anything, for a country to say ‘we will decide what the cultural identity and the cultural destiny of this country will be and nobody else.” This may be the attitude Africa needs to adopt if it is to solve Africa’s football problems and eventually aim to win the tournament rather than to see who may eventually reach the semifinals.