The 2017 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) starts on the 14th of January and will be hosted by Gabon and sponsored by Total. If that doesn’t interest you, it’s pretty understandable. If international football is deemed a necessary annoyance in the football calendar, African football represents a particular nuisance. There is the disorganization, the awkward timing of the AFCON tournaments and the numerous scandals. As if that wasn’t enough, Africa has never seen one of her nations represented in the semi-final stage of a World Cup tournament. The story of African football is one of underachievement.
Why do big African football teams succeed in youth competitions only to falter when the big competition, the World Cup, comes around? No team has won more U-17 trophies than Nigeria (5 time winners). Ghana has won the tournament twice—the same number of times as Germany, Spain and France. There is a temptation to be lazy and cynically reason that it must have something to do with “football ages”. There is no easy answer to this question. However, if pushed to explain the problem African nations face I would say the problem is twofold:
- A lack of proper team ethic.
- A lack of proper technical coaching at the youth levels.
Cast your minds back to the weeks leading up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Who were the pre-tournament favorites? Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England and Holland. Germany were the only side in that group to reach the semis. Brazil and England were particularly disappointing with their quarter-final exits. But with the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that both teams lacked team ethic. England’s “golden generation” boasted some of the Premier League’s best, all playing near the peak of their careers. But there was a palpable lack of team cohesion in the midfield and attack. Their games made for terrible entertainment and the likes of Rooney, Lampard, and Beckham left with their reputations dented. Brazil were not much better, and they boasted the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Adriano, and Robinho.
This lack of team chemistry has plagued most African teams for many years. What one finds is that coaches pay more attention to names and reputations, and pick XI’s based on individual qualities without taking cohesion into proper consideration. That is not to say a coach should not pick his best individuals. But there is a difference between forcing pieces together and patiently searching for what fits. It should go without saying, but a coach should be able to assess his squad of players and pick a system that fits the majority.
One of the most frequent traits of African teams in World Cups is a seeming inability to retain the ball. For all the quality Africa has produced over the years, there has been precious few players who look to use the ball intelligently. It’s not so much African players lack technique. But while the likes of Brazil, Germany, and Spain have over different generations mastered the art of passing and movement in high pressure situations, the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon fold easily. In theory, there is nothing inherently wrong with playing physical football like most African teams prefer. In fact, it is this physicality that gives African teams the edge in youth tournaments. But after long seasons with their clubs, it is extremely difficult for any team to play at their physical peak. This is why teams that can play technical football to a high standard tend to always do better at international tournaments. This technical coaching has to take place when the players are learning the fundamentals. An emphasis on technical play will improve the fortunes of upcoming African generations. In the short term, Nigeria will likely satisfy themselves by adding to their five U-17 titles.