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What is African about the African Nations’ Cup? By Lambert Mbom.

In under a few days, soccer teams of 16 African nations will gather in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for the biennial African Cup of Nations competition from Jan. 21 – Feb. 5 2012. Aside from the fact that some of Africa’s best teams such as Egypt (current cup holders), South Africa (first ever African host of the World Cup jamboree), Cameroon and Nigeria did not qualify, one other disturbing reality is that this competition seems to lack in essence, the African flavor.

Anyone who doubts that soccer has remained a predominantly Eurocentric sport should think again. Europe is a favorite destination for African talent. There is no African star that has risen to stardom without passing through Europe.

Even former French soccer star Thierry Henry who now plays for New York Red Bulls is so much in love with European soccer that with Major League Soccer now in recess, he has had to go back to his former team, Arsenal in England to satiate his hunger.

 African immigrants have a passion for European soccer teams depending on which of their kinsmen play in those teams. It is particularly striking to note that a good number of Cameroonians fell in love with Spanish side FC Barcelona just because Cameroonian star Eto’o Fils was playing there. When he moved to Inter Milan, many of these switched their allegiance too and many cried foul on claims of racism.

 Or out of sheer love for excellence, some are diehard supporters of English Premier League teams like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea or Spanish La Liga’s FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Italian Serie A’s Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. For some strange reasons, French teams, which carry a bulk of African professional soccer players, do not command a similar attraction.

 The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) presents an opportunity for Africa to showcase African soccer wizardry and finesse. In my judgment, this is a missed opportunity as the genuine “Africanness” is yet to make its mark.

 One area where this has increasingly been exemplified is that of coaching. In 2010, nine of the 16 coaches that managed African teams during this competition were expatriates: Portuguese Manuel Jose de Jesus managed Angola, Serbian Milovan Rajevac – Ghana, Portuguese Paolo Jorge Duarto – Burkina Faso, French Thierry Froger – Togo, French Denis Goavec – Benin, Dutch Mart Nooj – Mozambique, French Herve Renard – Zambia, French Paul Le Guen – Cameroon and French Alain Giresse – Gabon. Five of these were Frenchmen.

 Nevertheless, it was the indefatigable Egyptian Hassan Shehata who provided the magic winning formula for Egypt to lift the coveted African Nations’ Cup beating Serbian coached Ghana in 2010.

 In 2012, eight of these coaches are expatriates: Brazilian Gilson Paulao – Equatorial Guinea, German Gernot Rohr – Gabon, Brazilian Marcos Dias Paqueta – Libya, French Herve Renard – Zambia, Belgian Eric Maria Gerets – Morocco, Serbian Goran Stevanovic – Ghana, French Alain Giresse – Mali and French Michel Dussuyer for Guinea. All the other eight are “homeboys,” indigenous Africans even though trained in Europe.

 And these foreign coaches literally just bilk these African nations. Many of them treat their jobs worse than part-time jobs. They live abroad, demand “fat” salaries with huge bonuses, hardly take up residence in the country they are coaching, zoom in and out just in time for a competition. Yet the salary disparities between them and indigenous coaches speak volumes.

 Paradoxically, in June 2012, the European Nations’ Cup will hold in Poland and Ukraine. No African coach will be managing any of these teams. One cannot but wonder whether Africans are so incompetent in soccer that they cannot manage a European team? Can the scale off our eyes?

 There are excellent arguments why expatriate coaches serve African teams better than indigenous experts. They command more respect and most of these locals are just downright “tribalists” who score high marks in bribery and corruption etc. And even in this age of globalization, can one still afford to be parochial?

 Yet, the eternal validity of the expression “charity begins at home” is one that needs no defense and whose meaning African soccer teams need to rediscover. I am definitely not advocating for any cold bone isolationism but there is no denying it that it is time for Africa to consume “Made in Africa.” This may not be a sufficient condition but at least it should be a necessary condition when it comes to hiring coaches for African teams.

 Even though former Egyptian coach never succeeded to qualify his team for the World Cup, his magical feat is on record for leading the Egyptian team to a three consecutive successful title grab in 2006, 2008 and 2010. He is an Egyptian. Give African coaches a chance. Africa must shed off this neocolonialism. African soccer needs a paradigmatic shift from “Good because it is foreign” to “Good because it is home-made.”

Africa must borrow a leaf from USAJOBS, the U. S. federal government’s mega site that advertises jobs in the US, which clearly require US citizenship of any applicant for most jobs. On the international scene Africans can hardly compete for most jobs require citizenship of the countries where organizations are based. Soccer is a golden opportunity for African countries also to make use of African labor.

 In a second instance, a majority of the players taking part in this competition are African professionals in foreign leagues. Of the 368 players listed for 2012 AFCON, more than three-quarters play in Europe and Asia. The message clearly then is African home-based players are not good enough, if at all.

 Again, Egypt has repeatedly proven this hypothesis wrong. In her three consecutive title victories, she has done so with a team that is composed mainly of home-based players.

Soccer in the Maghreb is definitely of premium grade. This is evident in the fact that Al Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt for example hold CAF (Confederation of African Football) records for highest winners of the coveted African Clubs’ Champions league title.

One would not be wrong to suggest that the time has come if CAF is serious about promoting soccer on the continent for it to require countries to include a certain number of local based players for the competition. Let us consume “Made in Africa” too.

A third area is that of paraphernalia. German firms, PUMA and Adidas are the two major outlets with contracts to supply teams with the gear for the competition.

 The beauty of African fabric – popularly known as “Afritude” fascinates many people the world over. One wonders whether African fabric is so soccer unfriendly? Is it so unsuitable for soccer jerseys? There should be the possibility for our African teams to don African made jerseys during the African nations’ cup. This may be puerile fantasy but clearly one cannot deny the fact that African apparel cannot just be an admiration for foreign consumption. Is it not anti-African that a competition on African soil has a sizable amount of the income going to Europe?

 One must admit the fact that the cost effectiveness of such a venture might just be the barrier. Yet, if competition organizers want this to happen, they will create the possibilities for the business to thrive.

 At a recent African Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) conference in DC, one of the African women entrepreneurs in attendance complained that even though she could stitch swimming pants for athletes in the US, with the huge competition from China and India, it would be a suicidal mission for her to engage in that kind of business.

Even though there is definitely a lot to unpack in terms of the Sino-US relations and Sino-African relations, something needs to be done to level the playing field. If Africa needs to mature in trade and development, it is in creating and multiplying such opportunities for Africans that the miracle will occur.

Coincidentally, the African Union will be meeting from Jan. 23 – 30, 2012 on the theme “Boosting Intra African Trade.” Even though one can bet that soccer is not one of those areas of trade that would be explored, it is incumbent on the African Union to seriously consider soccer as a viable area of intra continental trade especially African fabric.

The above notwithstanding, one must recognize the fact that most of the African teams participating in this year’s competition trained on African soil. Niger traveled to Cameroon while Botswana, Zambia and Ghana availed of World Cup standards’ training facilities in South Africa. Mali was in Togo, Guinea Conakry in Cote d’Ivoire and Angola and Senegal trained at home in Cabinda and Dakar respectively. Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided a favorite training ground for Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Morocco (after training in Spain) and Libya.

Let the good times roll and Africa must not only “rise up and walk” but also celebrate its giftednness and promote “Africanness.”

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