The story of the disappointing performances of the African national soccer teams during competitions organized by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) and CAF (Confederation of African Football) has always been deeply rooted in a fundamental dilemma. The issue is whether African national soccer teams should rely on home-based amateur players and, probably, experience the type of embarrassment suffered by Zaire at Germany 1974 or rely on professional players based in Europe and/or the Middle East and face the type of team-dysfunction displayed by the likes of Cameroon, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire during Brazil 2014. For obvious reasons, since the debacle of Zaire in 1974, most African national federations have chosen the latter option. However, this choice seems to only offer a short-term solution to a complex problem which requires hard work and long-term planning. This decision, for better or worse, seems to have led to either some of the best performances of African teams (Algeria 1982, Cameroon 1990, Nigeria 1994 and 1998, Senegal 2002, Ghana 2006 and 2010, and Algeria 2014) during the first stages of World Cups or unconvincing first round eliminations such as the ones suffered by Cameroon, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire at Brazil 2014.
“The issue is whether African national soccer teams should rely on home-based amateur players and, probably, experience the type of embarrassment suffered by Zaire at Germany 1974 or rely on professional players based in Europe and/or the Middle East and face the type of team-dysfunction displayed by the likes of Cameroon, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire during Brazil 2014”
For those unfamiliar with the history of African soccer, it is worth recounting some of the lessons learned as well as the opportunities missed by the African national federations from the debacle of the 1973-74 Leopards of Zaire. During those two years, Zaire won almost every African competition. AS Vita Club of Kinshasa won the club champions’ title after defeating Asante Kotoko of Kumasi, Ghana, in the final (2-4 and 3-0). The Leopards won the African Cup of Nations held in Egypt and also qualified for Germany 1974 after eliminating, in the final round, Morocco, which had represented Africa at Mexico 1970. There was something exceptional about Zaire during that two-year span, as Wikipedia correctly, points out: “24 African countries entered the qualification process for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, with the Leopards of Zaire eventually qualifying quite comfortably, scoring 18 goals and conceding 5 in the ten matches they played to qualify.” In fact, those Leopards had a structure wholly based on players from three of the major clubs in the country. In the first team, four defenders, including the goal-keeper, came from TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi, four from AS Vita Club, and three from CS Imana (today’s Daring Cub Motema Pembe) of Kinshasa. While TP Mazembe’s players were all defenders, the three CS Imana players operated on the left side of the midfield and offense and the three Vita Club players on the right side. As a result, Zaire played as a team, that is, a cohesive unit. Players knew each other so well that the Congolese Striker Ndaye Mulamba still holds the scoring record for the African Nations’ Cup tournament having scored nine goals during Egypt 1974. The virtue of playing as a team/unit has without any doubt been the foundation of Spain’s (South Africa 2010 and Europe 2012) and Germany’s successes in the last few years. While Spain relied heavily on a structure built around Barcelona FC and Real Madrid’s players, Germany placed their faith on Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Arsenal FC’s players.
To their credit, the Leopards of the glorious years of Zaire were also firm believers in untainted fame, pride, loyalty, and patriotism. Unfortunately, with the ever increasing commercialization of sport, and the rise of the sport agent it has brought with it, throughout the world of sport, those Zairean players have now become the embodiment of something like a naïve romanticism, that is, they are considered to be members of a rare breed of soccer players who believed in playing for the love of the game. In philosophy of sport parlance, they are believed to have played for what some have called the internal, and, others, the autotelic goods of sport.
“Zairean players have now become the embodiment of something like a naïve romanticism, that is, they are considered to be members of a rare breed of soccer players who believed in playing for the love of the game”
It important to note, however, that the legacy of the Leopards is not without blemish as the team, perhaps brutally awakened from their naïve romanticism, also demanded the payment of their World Cup bonuses before they faced Yugoslavia in their second game during Germany 1974. As Ndaye Mulamba, their potent striker, was keen to point out after their 9-0 defeat, “The management had made off with our match bonuses, and we’d threatened not to play the game. Frankly, we’d lost our morale. We could easily have let in 20 goals.”[Refer to Wikipedia entry ‘Zaire makes an impression’]. Obviously, the players’ pay-before-play demand was based on the suspicion that the “presidential gift” of a house and a car given to each one of them by President Mobutu for winning the African Cup of Nations and qualifying for Germany 1974 was only a fraction of the tournament bonuses paid by FIFA to all qualified federations. Hence, in the absence of transparent guidelines and procedures for compensating part-time national ambassadors such as soccer players, the Leopards’ threat to strike planted the seeds of the type of bonus disputes African representatives to the World Cup have been known for in the last four decades.
“Obviously, the players’ pay-before-play demand was based on the suspicion that the “presidential gift” of a house and a car given to each one of them by President Mobutu for winning the African Cup of Nations and qualifying for Germany 1974 was only a fraction of the tournament bonuses paid by FIFA to all qualified federations”
As we pointed out above, the African national federations chose not to pursue the Congolese experiment following Germany 1974, perhaps because the Leopards lost all their group stage games (0-2 against Scotland, 0-9 against Yugoslavia, and 0-3 against Brazil) while conceding in the process fourteen goals and scoring none. Obviously, one needs not be a genius to realize that the poor performances of the Congolese team during Germany 1974 might have been the result of their team low morale or, more adequately, the fact that all the Congolese players were amateurs who had to face teams featuring well-trained professionals most of whom had been playing for years in top European and Brazilian leagues. Therefore, the opportunity to learn from the Congolese experiment was missed, and what followed could only be characterized as the dilemma of the African National Soccer Teams. Instead of investing in professionalism, by designing long-term investment plans aimed at attracting football investors from around the globe, African federations encouraged the exodus of their players towards Europe and the Middle East. The results have been predictably mixed, especially for players leaving Africa too early in their search for a better life anywhere else.
“The Leopards’ threat to strike planted the seeds of the type of bonus disputes African representatives to the World Cup have been known for in the last four decades”
While there have been a few exceptions since 1974, most African national teams have become more like a collection of individually talented players hastily brought together in order to achieve a goal that might only be attained by a cohesive unit. Most of these teams sometimes field eleven players from eleven different teams from all over Europe and the Middle East. On the positive side, there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that these players who come from professional leagues often display higher technical skills and better awareness of game strategies than the home-based amateur players. However, they also often show little to no interest in working together in order to create a cohesive team. In many cases, some of these professional players have exhibited no genuine desire for or commitment to teamwork and self-sacrifice. This could well be labeled “the Cote d’Ivoire Golden Generation Problem.” Indeed, as even the untrained eye could notice, two minutes from qualifying for the second round at Brazil 2014, the Cote d’Ivoire’s “African superstars” made no effort to either attempt to tackle or run back and defend for their life. As history has it, their opponents, Greece, took full advantage of their lack of commitment. Here, one could argue, perhaps the lucrative club contracts signed by these players throughout Europe and the Middle East could well be incompatible with the type of patriotism and national pride expected from teams aiming at overcoming the odds of Africa’s World Cup history.
In addition, the African national federations have not always been models of organizational behavior. In many countries, the selection of national team players is as acrimonious as national politics. The same is also true of the selection of the national team coaches and their staff. All the political evils inherent in African politics (corruption, favoritism, intrigue, intrusion, interference, etc) often find their way into the process of selecting national team players and coaches.
“One could argue, perhaps the lucrative club contracts signed by these players throughout Europe and the Middle East could well be incompatible with the type of patriotism and national pride expected from teams aiming at overcoming the odds of Africa’s World Cup history”
Moreover, the logistics of bringing the selected players and coaches together add another dimension to an already loaded situation. Having chosen the option of selecting professional players over home-based ones, national federations face new challenges. How can coaches select players spread across Europe and the Middle East without adequate travel budgets? Where should preparation camps take place keeping in mind both the time limits inherent in FIFA’s mandatory international breaks and travel distances for both players and coaches? Should those players who take part in friendly games, for instance, be favored to feature in official matches? Should the scouting of players be conducted by non-coaching staff members? In light of all these complex issues, one wonders whether African national teams will ever fulfill their potential at the biggest stage of world soccer. To conclude, let us, briefly, examine some possible solutions which might improve the overall performances of the Africa national teams.
As we hinted above, first of all, African countries need to overcome their tendency to seek quick “fixes” for problems which demand long-term solutions. Without long-term investment plans to professionalize national leagues, African teams will remain barely competitive despite the abundance of talented players who often excel in their clubs throughout or outside the continent. African governments could help their national federations by developing attractive sport-related economic plans which could include all sorts of incentives to attract soccer investors from around the world. Obviously, professional soccer demands a strong economic environment whereby an educated fan base for each team would understand the indispensability of their support for not only their respective teams but also the local or national leagues. In addition, it requires proper staff training, qualified coaches and managers, youth academies, and so on. In all truth, without having adequate sport infrastructures and economic resources, almost all African countries are quite far away from such a dream.
One realistic way the African soccer federations have tried to address the dilemma discussed above has been to hold the African Cup of Nations for Africa-based players only. The Democratic Republic of Congo (2009), Tunisia (2011), and Libya (2014) have won the first three editions of what is referred to as the CHAN (African Nations Championship). While this idea appears to be noble, it still fails to resolve the fundamental issue of player competitiveness. As a result, despite their commendable performances at the CHAN, most of the selected Africa-based players were resigned to bench-warming during the African Cup of Nations held in South Africa as well as during Bazil 2014. Therefore, as long as the professional players living outside Africa continue to earn their first team spots without facing serious competition from Africa-based players, the African national soccer teams will always fall short in the search for the big world soccer prizes.
In the meantime, the current arrangement adopted, perhaps by default, by the African sport federations could lead to better performances with improved governance, transparent guidelines and procedures in the selection process of players and coaches, clearly stated compensation procedures for all part-time or temporary government employees serving in ambassadorial roles such as soccer or basketball national team players. In fact, players invited to represent their countries ought to be given the choice to either accept or decline the invitation after they have thoroughly reviewed the terms of their participation in each specific event. This would ensure that only those players and coaches who would be willing to uphold the duties of their positions would be selected for each specific event.
Finally, there needs to be improved logistic management of national teams’ events. While FIFA and CAF usually announce their event schedules, sometimes, years in advance, most African federations, perhaps hampered by their political institutions, tend to act with no such urgency. National team training camps are often chaotic and held weeks behind schedule. Perhaps, minimal interference by the ministries of sports in the decisions of the national federations might help speed up the process of gathering players and coaching staff from all across the globe. But, here again, one wonders how could government stay out of the business of sport when national federations remain totally dependent upon budgets often funded through special “presidential gifts” or the likes. Perhaps, there might never be light out of the tunnel for the African national teams.
Footnotes and references
(1) See Wikipedia’s article entitled “African nations at the FIFA World Cup” which has to be commended for its thorough historical review of the history of the African representatives at the World Cup since 1934 from “Egypt’s early appearance” to Brazil 2014, punctuated by years of denials, boycotts, and relative successes.
(2) See Wikepedia’s section entitled “1974: Zaire makes an impression.”
(3) The four players from TP Mazembe were Kazadi (goalkeeper), Mwepu, Mukombo,and Bwanga (defenders). AS Vita Club’s players include Lobilo (central defender), Mavuba or Kibonge (attacking midfielders), Mayanga (right winger), and one of three strikers: Kembo, Ndaye Mulamba or Ntumba Kalala). CS Imana provide three players: Mana (holding midfielder), Kidumu (the traditional #10), and Kakoko etepe (left winger).
(4) There is an abundance of literature in philosophy of sport about the distinction between the internal and external goods of sport. See, for example, Adrian Walsh & Richard Guilianotti’s book entitled Ethics, Money and Sport: This Sporting Mammon (London: Routledge, 2007) which is aimed at offering an alternative for MacIntyre’s distinction between internal goods and external goods.