African nations left to lick their collective wounds
Weakness of domestic game on the continent still a major barrier to real progress at international level
Asia may have been the biggest loser on the pitch with not one of the confederation’s four sides at this World Cup winning a game but African football will also be licking its collective wounds in the wake of Nigeria and Algeria exiting the competition on Monday.
Both teams performed creditably at the tournament but neither was good enough to become the continent’s fourth ever quarter-finalist. Ghana and Cameroon embarrassed themselves off or on the pitch; far worse, perhaps, if there were to be anything to the report that details of the latter’s 4-0 defeat by Croatia had been accurately predicted by a figure with a record of match fixing.
World rankingIn all just three group games were won between five sides, better than the Asian quarter who didn’t win a match between them, but still desperately disappointing overall.
As their world ranking had suggested they would be, Algeria were the African team of the tournament and way in which they took on Germany in Porto Alegre highlighted their ability and confidence.
Like Nigeria, they faded late on against players whose experience at top ranking clubs ultimately told but both successfully ran better opponents close by adopting tactical plans that sought to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses.
Still, there was a failure to make any advances on what has been achieved since 1990 when Cameroon because the first African side to make it through to the last eight. Asked why he felt that the last of the teams were on their way home with three rounds of the competition left to play, Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi suggested that perhaps some of the players lacked the experience required.
It can’t help, either, that the development of their game is so heavily dependent on the football of the very European nations they are trying to displace from the tournament’s top table.
In Algeria’s case, the association with France runs deep. More than half the country’s squad here in Brazil were actually born in the former colonial power and a third of it had been capped at at least one underage level by the French.
The selection policies of Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodži are a major talking point in the north African state with the manager arguing that only those that have demonstrated a clear desire to declare for the country are considered. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion several would have stuck with France had they had the option.
Indeed, many of the squad Didier Deschamps has here have strong African family connections and Patrice Evra was actually born in Senegal, Rio Mavuba on a ship in international waters to an Angolan mother and Congolese father. When Congo made an approach about him playing for the country he was firm: “I grew up in France, I am French and I will play for them,” but we will never know whether his attitude would have softened in the event he had not made it with Les Bleus at senior level.
Richest nationsThe importance of players, like him, brought up in Europe, is so great because the African club set up is so poor. Fifa has given close to €400 million in grant aid to African associations over the last 15 years but in an era when a top class pitch can cost tens or hundreds of thousands, a properly equipped youth academy millions, it is a drop in the ocean when compared with facilities available to clubs in the richest nations.
The calibre of coaching is important too while the superior nutrition, health and educational support all give players in Europe a better chance of developing. It is just one reason why so many young players born in Africa try so desperately to make their way to the likes of Belgium or France only.
“We are trying to offer the best things that we have to our players but it’s really tough in Africa to maintain a club,” Moise Katumbi, the president of Congolese side TP Mazembe told the BBC recently. “I think the day African players remain on the continent, then Africa can win the World Cup.”
Nest stepKeeping the best ones there now is almost impossible when, as he points out, sponsorships are worth little, participation in the continent’s equivalent of the Champions League actually involves making a loss and facilities remain poor. And for the European clubs taking the best players young is far more cost -efficient than building up the African game.
Until that changes, and countries across the continent are nurturing their own talent rather than exporting it to leagues where clubs then have an incentive to pressure players into declaring for their adopted homeland, it is hard to see African football being able to take the next step.