Why African Teams Never Quite Make It

The World Cup is being played in Africa this year, and it’s about time. African players have been prominent in global club football for decades now — as many as 1,000 of them play in Europe — and only a bureaucratic inside job ensured that the 2006 tournament went to Germany when South Africa had been widely expected to get the nod from FIFA, the governing body of world soccer. In its embarrassment, FIFA promised the 2010 finals to Africa, and the growing excitement on the continent is palpable.

And yet African soccer’s progress on the playing field has been pathetic when you compare to the expectations that began to bubble in 1990, when a tough, attractive Cameroon team – led by the brilliant Roger Milla, a 38-year-old striker – charged to the World Cup quarter-finals after beating defending champions Argentina in the opening game of the tournament’s group stage.

Where I live, in Ireland, that 1990 Cameroon team is forever linked with our own postcolonial pinnacle. Ireland too made unprecedented progress that year, beaten narrowly, heartbreakingly, in the quarter-final by the host country, Italy. The Irish team even got to meet the Pope. The players returned home in triumph, hundreds of thousands filling Dublin city center to sing and cheer. The  team captain was making a speech from a stage in front of the old parliament building when a rumor buzzed through the crowd: “Cameroon are beating England.”

Suddenly rivulets, then rivers, of Irish fans began to stream away from their own in-the-flesh heroes, in search of pubs with televisions to cheer a new set of heroes in far-away Naples, Africans who, conveniently, also wore green. “C’mon you boys in green,” we sang as we had for weeks, crowding around any visible screen, a new injection of adrenalin running through our veins after the national high of our own games.  If the TVs had been loud enough to drown out our noise we could have heard the Neapolitans singing for the Cameroonians too.

Cameroon were 2-1 ahead with less than 10 minutes left, and they were all over the hated English. But the Africans missed a chance, and England went to the other end to win a penalty and equalize. England undeservedly won the game in extra time, and our hearts and hundreds of millions of other hearts all over the world were broken. Many of us comforted ourselves with the confident prediction that it was only a matter of time, and probably not much of it, before there was an African champion. Pelé himself said he expected it before the 1990s were through.

Nigeria have often looked the Africans most likely. In 1994, in the US-hosted World Cup, they met Italy in the first knock-out round after an impressively efficient group stage. I was at the game, near Boston, seated behind a group of Italians making fascist salutes. Despite my middle name (Mario), my Italian grandparents, my birthplace in Vicenza, I found it easy to cheer the Nigerians, as did most of the American crowd. A hugely talented team, led by two young midfield wizards, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh, they were tactically super-cautious under the management of Dutchman Clemens Westerhof: they scored one goal and then toyed with the Italians when they could have been finishing them off. As the game clicked into injury time, and with Italy down to 10 men, Nigeria stupidly gave away possession and Italy charged upfield and scored. Extra time saw Italy score again and go through.

Two narrow, unlucky disappointments, 20 and 16 years ago, knocking out teams that were probably good enough to go all the way. Since then, only Senegal’s progress to quarter-final disappointment in 2002 has illuminated African soccer at this level. And if brilliant teams from west Africa have underachieved, then the teams that qualify from north Africa, where the game’s physical and financial infrastructure is more advanced than anywhere on the continent outside South Africa, have consistently been among the great bores of the tournament. Past games involving Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have tended to be among the World Cup’s most forgetable for the neutrals.

South Africa itself is a solid soccer country. Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Invictus, tells the story of how Nelson Mandela managed to unite the country around its white rugby team in the 1995 rugby world cup. The real achievement was to get black South Africans to look at rugby at all. This soccer tournament will be different: the local black population will hang on every moment for their ‘Bafana Bafana’, despite many people facing the usual array of evictions, skin-deep ‘prettification’ and contractor corruption that accompanies all such global events. (A recent survey suggested that white South Africans remain more indifferent to their country’s soccer performance. For the rugby-loving whites, the Springboks rule. ) As the host country South Africa has not had to qualify competitively, so it is hard to know how well the team will perform. But if the failure of the current crop of South African players to mark a mark on European club soccer is any indication – and it’s probably the best measure we’ve got – then the country is not good enough even to equal the quarter-final places achieved in the past by Cameroon and Senegal.

What is going on here? Why are African national teams failing to rise on the trajectory that seemed plotted for them 20 years ago?

Some people point to the players of African birth and descent who have got European passports and found their way into national sides nearer to where they play club soccer. Senegal’s greatest-ever player, for example, is probably Dakar-born Patrick Vieira, the midfielder whose family emigrated to France when he was eight, and who counts Knight of the Legion d’honneur among his achievements as a player for France, alongside his World Cup and European Championship medals from 1998 and 2000. How good would Senegal have been with him in the team?

Other players have neglected their countries to concentrate on club careers. Most clubs are happy to have players performing well for national teams, because it increases their visibility and potential transfer value. But Africa, with its continental championship every two years in the middle of the European season, counts as something of an exception, and many players pick up convenient short-term injuries rather than travel to play for their countries.

This summer the conflicts and contradictions are embodied in Ghanaian-German half-brothers Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Jerome has opted to play for Germany and Kevin-Prince, after an argument with German officials at under-age level, has chosen to play for their father’s homeland of Ghana. It’s even possible that they might play against each other on June 23rd when the countries meet.

But such stories seem an insufficient explanation for the state of African soccer. After all, top South American players may face some similar issues, but it doesn’t stop Brazil from being consistently the best national side in the world.

Of course, it may be that there is nothing to explain, that World Cups are too rare and events there too random to ascribe the sort of significance that would, in turn, require an explanation; that it would be more surprising if African ‘progress’ had followed some simple upward graph rather than bouncing around aimlessly as it has done. This idea collides, however, with the inescapable statistic that in 80 years and 18 tournaments the World Cup has never had a truly surprising winner. Things happen in World Cups for a reason. There should be some reason for African footballing ‘failure’.

The explanation is surely not far removed from the complex reasons behind other forms of African ‘failure’ over the decades since widespread independence for countries on that continent. They include neoliberal reforms, and the ensuing poverty and weakness of state structures, leaving economies that can’t support much in the way of domestic league structures, and national federations that are poor and disorganized. They presumably include the colonial carve-up itself, which has left many ‘nations’ without a lot of  ‘imagined-community’. Public debates about national squad selection, which are heating up all over the world this weekend, often have nasty regional and political dimensions.

Just this week the former head of the Ghana soccer federation accused some of his country’s top players of being ‘age cheats’. The charge is partly attributable to bitter splits within the football association there, but it comes around too often in African soccer to be completely ignored. The gist of it is that men in their 20s are given false documents so that they may participate in international under-17 and under-20 tournaments — where, indeed, African countries have often triumphed. The trouble is that when the same players should be approaching their late-20s peak, in reality they’re injury-prone, broken-down 30somethings. It is difficult to know how prevalent this has been, or if it has been eradicated by bone-density testing. It certainly remains part of the troubled atmosphere around African squads, and therefore probably one of the reasons for African under-achievement.

And the reasons include a sort of neocolonialism. This takes two forms in soccer. One is the ‘extraction’ of top players to Europe, as surely as any crop or mineral resource. The other is more odd: the management of most major African national teams is carried out by non-African coaches, mercenaries who have left middling careers elsewhere to flit around Africa. When World Cups approach, unemployed European or South American coaches with better pedigrees approach the national federations that have qualified, offering their services for a few months. Those federations, desperate for success, will splash out millions of dollars on a new management team, as Ivory Coast has with Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson and his assistants this spring. Eriksson, who has formerly coached England, replaces a relatively obscure Bosnian.

The bureaucrats feel they are doing something, but the players may feel demoralised by the change, the discontinuity, the lack of confidence displayed. Team tactics that may have evolved over years can be thrown out on the eve of the most important games of their lives. Eriksson’s first-ever meeting with his players will take place on May 22nd, three weeks before the World Cup begins. (Nigeria had an actual Nigerian manager until Feburary, though they too are now managed by a Swede; Algeria is the only one of the six African teams playing in the finals with an African coach.)
Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter, speaking a few days ago, admitted there is a problem, even as  he indulged in a ‘dancing Africans’ stereotype. “The talent of African players is at least as great as that of players from other countries, including Brazil and the Americas,” Blatter told a news conference. “They have got more in terms of individual talent. It is as if they are dancing or playing at acrobatics. What is missing is tactics. But how can they have this if they change the coach just a few months before the start of the biggest competition in the world?”

Ivory Coast are, nonetheless, the favorite for African achievement this year, with a mouthwatering assortment of players throughout the team who are familiar from top European clubs. The team has also been credited with helping to lead their country out of civil war. They are spearheaded by the powerful Chelsea striker Didier Drogba. However, their star-quality could count against them: not only has it attracted the dubious qualities of Eriksson as coach, but it means that the team has players who are still involved in the chase for major club honors in Europe; the soccer year is a mercilessly long one, with an off-season that is often measured in weeks rather than months. (Conversely, Ghana could benefit from the fact that its captain and midfield powerhouse, Michael Essien, has been out injured, and therefore resting, for most of this season — though reports in the last few days cast surprising doubts on whether he’ll recover in time at all.) Fans around the world would love to see an Ivory Coast in contention – especially here in Ireland, where our guys haven’t qualified but we need only turn our flags upside-down to match the Ivorian one.

For the first World Cup on the African continent, it would be a shock if, despite some tough group draws, there is not at least one African teams in the final eight. But it would be a still bigger surprise if one of them lifts the trophy on July 11th.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com 


Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne