The old palace in Cairo, Egypt, was an appropriate metaphor for African football as it gathered together all its national team coaches, just months after the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, to reflect on the tournament. Spectacularly perched on the banks of the Nile, the Gezirah Palace basks in promise, but the tatty facade hides its potential and drab thinking spoils its capability – a bit like the game of football on the continent.
Now an American chain hotel, it was the venue where all the coaches and technical directors of the continent’s 54 countries assembled to do a post-mortem on a tournament held out as the would-be turning point for the African game. But the continent had failed to live up to this promise and had gone backwards instead.
The idea of the gathering was to reflect on the performance of the six African countries represented at that World Cup: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa. The aim was to unravel their journeys, understand their problems and gain some insight into their processes. Fifa also brought along World Cup winners Spain to ostensibly share their secrets, but really to sprinkle some stardust.
Each of the coaches of the six African countries sought to explain their failure, as all too familiar lists of travails were aired. It reinforced the fact that circumstances do not differ much from country to country, and that coaches work with much the same restraints and impediments, be they from Algeria or South Africa.
Nigeria, on whom so many hopes often rest, repeated the folly of firing their coach just months before the tournament. With it went arguably Africa’s best hopes. Ironically, it was the second time this had befallen Shaibu Amodu. Under him, the team qualified for the 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea. But when the Super Eagles only came third at the Africa Cup of Nations in Mali, hosted six months prior, he was replaced.
But Amodu was back for one of his multiple stints as coach of the Nigerian side and ensured their passage to the 2010 finals, in a near flawless qualifying campaign in which they went unbeaten in 12 games.
Again though, Nigeria first went to the Cup of Nations and when they finished third in Angola, Amodu was marched back up executioners’ hill. His replacement was Swede Lars Lagerback. He had little time to work with the Nigerians and so did not succeed. He was, however, an inspired appointment, and has gone on to forge a powerful reputation.
Same old problems
Such turbulence, allied with unrealistic expectations and a porous defence, meant the Super Eagles were never going to soar with any conviction. But they proved even less competent than expected, losing to Greece in Bloemfontein after leading at half-time. And had goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama not proved so impenetrable at times, it might have been worse.
Algeria were back at the World Cup for the first time in 14 years, having upset Nations Cup winners Egypt in a dramatic play-off game. It was the genesis of a climb back out of the doldrums for the North Africans that has since seen them win the Cup of Nations.
But in 2010, they were simply happy to be at the party. Holding England to a goalless draw in their second group game in Cape Town left them with a sense of satisfaction, even though they came last in their group.
Cameroon had an experienced squad with Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song and Geremi Fotso Njitap. These were established world stars. They had qualified for an African record sixth appearance at the World Cup but lost all three of their group stage games, beginning with an unexpected defeat to Japan. And they went on to be the first team eliminated from the tournament.
There were high hopes for Didier Drogba’s Ivorians, too, with the Toure brothers and Salomon Kalou in their ranks. However, these high hopes dissipated at the draw in Durban, when Hollywood actress Charlize Theron drew them to play in the same group as Brazil and Portugal.
They then shot themselves in the foot by appointing Sven Goran Eriksson as their coach weeks before the World Cup, in a bewildering fog of managerial egos and pumped up administrators. And so the pre-tournament pessimism about their “group of death” proved correct and the Ivorians went home early with only a win over North Korea in Nelspruit to show for their efforts.
Worst performance by the hosts
South Africa had major Fifa investment behind them in a bid to prove competitive, but still became the first hosts to fail to progress past the group stage of a World Cup. World football’s governing body paid the exorbitant salary of Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who proved to be much more of a tweaker than a tactical visionary. And he left much of the work to his assistants while he sipped cups of coffee on the sidelines.
He had the art of delegation down pat, but none of the Brazilian charisma it was hoped he would bring to the job. Admittedly, it was also not Bafana Bafana’s finest generation of players. Benni McCarthy was too old and fat, and had been dropped before the finals when allegedly caught with girls in his team hotel room.
His designated successor as talisman, Steven Pienaar, proved unable to inspire as had been hoped. But at least the hosts did provide one moment of African magic as Siphiwe Tshabalala raced down the left-hand side of the Mexico defence in the tournament’s opening game to score a goal for the ages.
Such a pity then, that it peaked all too early for South Africa.
Black Stars shining
It was left to Ghana to fly the flag for the continent. They were the only African side out of the initial six to emerge from a disastrous group stage, building exciting momentum as they manoeuvred through the drama of the knockout rounds and towards the nirvana of the semifinals.
Previously, Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) had been the only African countries to reach the last eight of a World Cup. Ghana’s extra-time win over the Americans made them the third, setting up the now infamous clash against Uruguay.
The 2 July meeting at Soccer City in Soweto is now prominent on the list of footballing infamy. Luis Suarez’s hand denied Ghana a last-gasp winner and Asamoah Gyan added insult to injury by botching the resultant spot kick to allow Uruguay a way back in the post-match penalty shootout.
“As with many African teams, our squad was based around one star,” explained Kwesi Appiah, the assistant coach in 2010 who went on to be the Black Stars coach, twice. “But when Michael Essien was injured, we had to think of alternatives. We had a team who had just won the Under-20 World Cup, so we turned to a few of those players.
“They were youngsters who needed confidence and a lot of encouragement to compensate for the lack of experience, so we had to work hard on that. Discipline was also very important, and we made it clear that there was no such thing as an automatic place in the line-up and there were no big players.”
It is often with African football that the unconventional works, albeit temporarily. Cameroon showed that in 1990, when they got to the quarterfinals without playing a single preparatory international and with President Paul Biya insisting they pick 38-year-old supposed “has-been” Roger Milla for the squad.
Africa’s self-inflicted problems
Fifa’s analysis of the 2010 tournament blamed African failure on “over-optimistic expectations that proved a burden to the participating teams”.
“Although 85% of the African players who tasted action at the World Cup are contracted to European clubs, they have so far been unable to fully bring their experience to bear when playing for their national teams,” said the technical report Fifa commissioned after the tournament.
“The different playing systems and team-mates are two possible reasons for their inconsistent performances. Furthermore, five of the six African teams had foreign coaches, most of whom were either brought on board at short notice or only for the World Cup finals.
“The coaches’ chances of success were limited by the fact that they often did not fully identify with African culture, mentality and lifestyle or knew too little about these actors.”
Many of the other points made in the report continue to be perpetuated by African associations today in a classic example of lessons being consistently ignored.
Admittedly, there is no template for instant success. It is the game’s unpredictability that makes it so popular. But if 2010 was supposed to be African football’s coming of age, then the party has been on hold for a decade now and does not look to be commencing any time soon.
Consistently, lessons and form are abandoned by waves of perpetual self-interest, each generation after the next held to ransom by the failings of those running the African game. And it appears to be getting worse.
In Russia two years ago, none of the five African countries at the World Cup made it past the first round. It is a new low for the continent, and it made 2010 seem almost palatable. But it wasn’t, of course. It was a massive missed opportunity that will not come around again for a long time to come.