When the World Cup trophy was handed over to South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, at the draw for the finals in Cape Town last December, he joked that it would be staying on the continent after the tournament was over. Aside from politicians searching for soundbites, few on the continent believed an African team would win the World Cup. But nor did many expect that five of Africa’s six representatives would crash out in the first round.
Ghana’s achievement in reaching the quarterfinals by beating the US, which matches Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002, does not mask the sense of disappointment that Africa has missed an opportunity.
Each of the five teams who failed to shine have their own reasons, from the infighting that blighted Cameroon’s campaign to the difficult draw which made Ivory Coast’s progress all but impossible. But many African football experts have put the blame on a combination of poor planning and a lack of investment in youth development.
“It’s all about organization and planning,” says James Wokabi, a Kenyan football commentator for Supersport, the pan-African satellite broadcaster which has been screening the World Cup. Four of the six teams have changed their coach in the last nine months. “Ivory Coast had a coach who did not know his team. He met them in May. The same for Nigeria. It took him two games to figure out who to play but then it was too late. Ghana is the only team that has had the same coach for the last two and a half years. They had a proper plan.”
Patrick Mboma, a former striker who played for Cameroon when they won Olympic gold in 2000, bemoaned the lack of investment in youth development. “We need to give young boys a chance to develop their talents,” says Mr. Mboma, who is in South Africa to promote 1Goal, a global campaign for education.
Few African countries have proper academies and most talented teenagers move to European clubs at a young age. Local leagues tend to be poorly organized and badly funded, attracting few fans and with players often going unpaid. They also face competition from European leagues, particularly the English Premier League, which are beamed into bars and homes across Africa every weekend. Fans from Dar es Salaam to Douala tend to prefer to watch European football on television rather than a national league match at the stadium.
The vast majority of African players at this World Cup play for teams in Europe. While that may have given them access to better coaches and facilities it has adversely affected the way they play, Wokabi argues. “When you take all the talent away from Africa you are killing the African flair. We used to have great creative players but the current African teams all pass the ball sideways. You can’t beat the Europeans at their game.”
Three of the six coaches of African teams have already indicated they will leave after the World Cup. If African teams are to match their potential at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, football associations should start planning now.
World Cup 101: