African team failures inspire soul searching
This was to be Africa's World Cup, not just the first to take place on the continent but also a showcase for its teams to excel. Mostly, however, it's been another letdown, and the post-mortems have begun.
Explanations abound, and several have the ring of truth. Lack of depth on the national teams, weak youth development programs, governing bodies that lack world-class professionalism, and — perhaps most egregiously — overreliance on non-African coaches hired for brief World Cup tenures.
The bottom line: the World Cup's six African teams — the most ever in the tournament — produced flashes of brilliance and feistiness, but collectively failed to close the gap with Europe and South America.
Ghana survived in its group, barely, to advance to a second-round match with the United States. But South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria have been eliminated, and Ivory Coast will join them unless it can miraculously overcome a goal differential of nine on Friday.
Hopes for an African breakthrough at the World Cup have simmered ever since Cameroon's performance in 1990, when charismatic 38-year-old striker Roger Milla led the Indomitable Lions to the quarter-finals, beating Argentina along the way. But that remains Africa's high-water mark — none of its teams has matched that achievement in the past two decades.
Nigeria was two minutes away from reaching the quarter-finals in 1994, leading Italy 1-0 in the round of 16 match until Roberto Baggio scored to take the game into extra time and then scored the winner for the Italians.
This year, talented Nigeria lost to Greece, due in part to Sani Kaita's red card on a foolish foul, and then could only draw with South Korea when it needed a win. Cameroon lost to Denmark and Japan, and was the first team eliminated. South Africa played valiantly before its impassioned fans, with a draw and a win in its first two games, but a 3-0 loss to Uruguay sealed its fate as the first World Cup host team ousted before the second round.
The traditional explanation for Africa's World Cup failures is excessive individualism and lack of team-oriented tactical discipline. But Neil Tovey, a former South Africa national team player and now a coach in the country's top professional league, places more blame on African soccer administration.
"We all know how talented African players are — they're playing in the top leagues in the world," Tovey told The Associated Press. "To get it right, you need to have a foundation, and I don't believe the associations involved in African football are as professional as their European counterparts."
Seemingly simple matters such as setting up World Cup training camps seemed to vex some of the African teams, Tovey said.
"And we always seem to have this history of finding new coaches a few months before the tournament," Tovey added. "We run too quickly to get foreign coaches ... You're not going to get them coming in a couple of months before and getting to understand the culture of a player."
To any observant World Cup follower, that's been one of the striking features of this supposedly African-themed tournament. Algeria has an Algerian coach, but the five sub-Saharan teams all have white coaches imported from abroad — Swedes Sven-Goren Eriksson with Ivory Coast and Lars Lagerback with Nigeria; Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira with South Africa; Frenchman Paul Le Guen with Cameroon; and Serbian Milovan Rajevac with Ghana.
All but Rajevac have had those jobs less than a year — Eriksson took over his post just three months ago.
Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a booster of African soccer, has spoken critically of the coaching merry-go-round.
"The talent of African players is at least as great as that of players from other countries," he told a news conference ahead of the World Cup. "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?"
Kenya's former national team coach, Jacob Mulee, contrasted the short-term approach of many African soccer associations with the approach of some perennial World Cup powers.
"You cannot keep on changing coaches — it takes time for a coach to gel with a number of players," Mulee said. "When you look at Germany, when you look at Brazil, these are teams which appointed their coaches four years ago."
Alexis Adele, a soccer specialist at Fanion, a sports daily in the Ivory Coast, said the fast-paced rotation of coaches is a problem across the continent — and particularly in his own country. Ivory Coast's national team has had five coaches, all European, since 2008.
"We hire a coach for three or four months and if there aren't results, we send them packing," he said. "We hire someone on Monday and we want to be winning on Tuesday. It's not logical. This kind of work takes time."
In some cases, Adele suggested, political interference is a problem.
"Those in power control the money, so they think they should be able to control the teams," he said. "It's ironic because they don't hold themselves to these same standards. They stay in power for decades without much to show for it."
Another widely cited problem is that African national teams lack the depth of their European and South American rivals, so an injury or red card to a top African player can be more damaging. The African teams do contain world-class stars who play in Europe's top leagues — but the squads predominantly comprise players from domestic or second-tier European leagues.
South Africa, whose final squad included seven overseas-based players, was ranked as high as 16th in the world by in the 1990s but entered this World Cup ranked 83rd.
Its priorities now are to replace the departing Parreira with a homegrown South African coach and beef up its youth development program, which was somewhat neglected amid the feverish efforts to prepare logistics for the World Cup.
Kirsten Nematandani, president of the South African Football Association, has acknowledged that SAFA "took our eyes off the grass-roots" and now hopes to make amends, with help from some FIFA-provided funds, by investing in new fields and development programs.
"We're not producing the results we should be," said Tovey, in comments that could apply to many African nations. "We need to put structures in place to run the correct development programs, for coaches as well as players."