Africa placing faith in homegrown coaches? Has Sepp Blatter gone mad?

Fifa President, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter is reported as having stated that Africa is unlikely to win a World Cup if it does not place faith in its coaches. The thrust of his argument appears to be that only an African coach is capable of better understanding the mentality of an African player. He also upbraids African teams that revel in changing coaches at the 11th hour before important football tournament. His comments come in the wake of African teams failing to progress beyond the quarter final stage of the London 2012 Olympic Football tournament, a competition which Africa has twice won before.

Stubborn Facts

Statistics and history appear to line up with Mr. Blatter’s logic because of the 34 African teams that have had the honour of playing at the World Cup finals since 1974, 24 of them have been coached by foreigners. This represents over 70% of foreign coaches unsuccessfully taking African teams to the World Cup! However, there is a troubling fact, which is that, no foreign coach has ever won the World Cup. All teams that have won the ultimate gong in world football have done so with indigenous coaches.

Before we get lost in statistics we have to admit the sobering reality that no African coach has ever taken his country past the World Cup group stage.

Exploits of Indigenous coaches

The first round exits of African teams coached by Africans at the World Cup have produced some positive elements worth some reflection. The first time an African time made a worthwhile run at the Fifa World Cup final was in 1978. Though Tunisia could not progress to the second round of the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina, Abdelmajid Chetali’s team registered a famous 3-1 victory over Mexico which was a first win by an African team in the World Cup finals. They also drew 0-0 with the then defending world champions, West Germany. Before 1978 African teams had only gone to the world cup to make up numbers. Africa’s representatives – Egypt in 1934; Morocco in 1970 and Zaire in 1974 – had all failed to record a win. The latter conceded 14 goals in three games and failed to score a single goal! It was coached by Blagoje Vidinic, a Yugoslav.

Algeria co-managed by Mahieddine Khalef and Rachid Mekloufi and assisted by Rabah Saadane was only prevented from qualifying to the group stages of the 1982 World Cup by the collusion of West Germany and Austria. Algeria had earlier on defeated West Germany 2-1. Germany needed to beat Austria by a goal or two for both to qualify at the expense of Algeria and the two managed to achieve this in the most farcical of fashions ever seen on a football pitch.

South Africa’s Jomo Sono led Bafana Bafana to the 2002 World Cup hosted by Japan and South Korea. He did not embarass Africa as his team had a decent run. These positives notwithstanding, an African coach is yet to lead an African team beyond the group stages at the World Cup finals.

The Problem

It is no rocket science that football associations in Africa do not have confidence in African coaches, they prefer coaches with top-level international experience. This explains why within a year before the commencement of the Fifa 2010 World Cup, four of the six African representatives decided to change coaches. The most mind-boggling change was the one effected by Nigeria when they sacked Shaibu Amodou who – apart from successfully guiding the team through the World Cup qualification rounds – had led the team to a third place finish at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. They replaced him with the Swede, Lars Lagerback who had failed to lead Sweden to the 2010 World Cup!

The pressure from fans when a team led by an African loses a crucial match or goes through a sustained winless streak does not help matters. Usually the hysteria generated by the fans inevitably forces the football associations to easily dispense with the services of indigenous coaches. The recent sacking of Bafana Bafana coach, Pitso Mosimane, who had served under top Brazilian coaches Carlos Alberto Pereira and Joel Santana, is a case in point. The South African football authorities succumbed to the clamour for change of the coach because his team had difficulties scoring and drew most of its matches!

There can be no running away from the fact that there is poor coaching education in Africa. The continent lacks established structures for training and re-training of coaching staff. In this scenario, there is hardly any hope of churning out well trained coaches. Consequently, when the job for the national coach is advertised ( which rarely happens), an African coach’s CV will compare unfavourably to that of a foreign coach.

Are foreign coaches good?

Judging by the fact that only foreign coaches have succeeded in lifting African teams beyond the group stages of the World Cup finals, they should certainly be good. Some of the coaches who have worked in Africa, like Carlos Alberto Pereira have won the World Cup before. Former coach of Tunisia, Roger Lemere won the European Cup with France in 2000.

The problem, as well stated by Mr. Blatter, appears to be the failure by foreign tutors to understand the mentality of African players. We are increasingly failing to see the flair of African players during matches. In the place of flair, improvisation and creativity, we are seeing an emphasis on the physical side of play. It shows that the African footballing culture and style of play is not understood by foreign instructors. The African player loves to entertain and the African crowd loves to be entertained.

Apart from the stifling of creativity, the foreign coaches are seen as having difficulty in communicating with African players. Some African players are of very humble education and need a coach to repeat his instructions and patiently demonstrate the lesson before it can be fully understood. This disconnect and failure of having a rapport between coach and players is problematic. The English national team players were also reported to have had language problems with their Italian coach Fabio Cappello and felt that most of his instructions ‘got lost in translation’. An indigenous coach is hardly ever likely to experience this language barrier.

Should African football associations only hire nationals?

Flowing from the logic presented in this article, the answer should be a resounding yes. However, this will not be happening in the foreseeable future because the fans, the football associations and the politicians want immediate results. They reckon that experienced coaches who can deliver instant results are not African! Long-term planning of upgrading local coaches’ education and investing of trust in a pool of local coaches appear to be unAfrican qualities. Local coaches are not even allowed the latitude of an occassional blip in form of the team.

Part of the reason why African coaches have not succeeded at the World Cups is because they are handed long and secure tenure in their positions to enable them build cohesive sides that can gell in time for tournaments. The African coach is not trusted. He is viewed as incompetent and incapable. Yet, African coaches have won junior World Cups before.

Af African coach has guided a nation to an Olympic football title before. Cameroon’s Jean Paul Akono and not Pierre Lechantre was the architect of the Indomitable Lions’ triumph at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Ghana’s Charles Gyamfi and Egypt’s Hassan Shehata have each won the Africa Cup of Nations three times making them the most succeesful African coaches at the Africa Cup. However, this pedigree of African coaches appears not to be enough in the eyes of Africa’s football federations. So, the continent will continue to pay an expensive price at serious football tournaments through their highly-paid expatriate coaches who are not only disconnected from their players, but they have little connection with the style and traditions of African football.

Gilbert Phiri

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