Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Africa Please Stand Up

The first round of the world cup is behind us and no team from Africa has won a game. Togo lost 2-1 to South Korea. Ivory Coast lost by the same margin to Argentina. Ghana were shut out 2-0 by Italy. Angola lost 1-0 to Portugal. Tunisia, who had the best chance and should have won, tied 2-2 with Saudi Arabia. Simply, this aint a good look for Africa. Are they just here to make up the numbers? The African continent has been badgering FIFA for an extra spot in the World Cup for years but when you go an entire round of the World Cup with just a single point from your five representatives, you don’t deserve an extra spot. In fact, one could argue that they should lose a spot based on their performances in the first round of games. Every other region has a win in the World Cup. It is a puzzling state of affairs because Africa has some of the top players in the world (Essien, Eto’o, Okocha, Drogba) yet they rarely show up with any consistency in the World Cup. All the African nations this time around, with the exception of Tunisia, are World Cup debutantes.
Traditional African powerhouses like Nigeria and Cameroon are back home watching the Cup in Lagos and Yaounde, respectively. There are myriad reasons why this is the case. First, there is a lack of resources to cultivate talent. Many of Africa’s most talented players are poached from their home countries at a young age and are developed into top players somewhere in Europe. If players were developed in their home country there would be a proliferation of talent on the continent but the European teams that take these players have no incentive to develop African football because by doing so they harm their own interests in maintaining their position of dominance. If this sounds a little too political, it’s totally unintended. The point is that because Africa does not have the resources to develop players many of the nations do not have the consistent flow of talent of players who can play the game at the top level unless they can make it to Europe to hone their skills. If they fail to do so they are stuck somewhere in Africa playing on dirt fields without adequate equipment. This is simply no way to prepare for a big match against Italy because countries like Italy has the resources to provide top training facilities, trainers and proper coaching.
It is not a question of talent because Africa produces great talent consistently. One need only look at the World Youth Championships where African nations are consistently either in the finals or winning the tournament. The problem is that as players get older and you have to rely on more than just raw talent, Africa gets left behind.
Another problem, which is related to the first, is that once the players make it to Europe they no longer feel an obligation to come back and play for their country when it’s time to do so. The ones who do often come back with a superstar attitude and don’t want to train with the team or ask for higher compensation than their teammates.

Still waiting for an African team to win a game at this World Cup.

Worse yet, the players end up developing a loyalty to their clubs because they pay them a salary that they could never make in Africa unless, of course, they were the head of a kleptocracy and appropriated the nation’s natural resources like oil and diamonds but that’s another discussion altogether. During qualifying many of Africa’s top players failed to show up for games because their clubs would not release them to play for their countries. For example, the gem of Nigeria, Jay Jay Okocha(so nice they had to name him twice) failed to show up for many of the country’s qualifiers because he was busy with his club games. Because the players don’t show up to help their nations qualify and take qualifying seriously there is no consistency in who makes it to the world cup. Moreover, many players who could qualify to play for African nations opt not to do so. Opting instead to gain naturalized citizenship in Europe and play for those countries instead of their country of birth. One need only look down the birthplace of some of the players on the French side and you will see what I’m talking about. Simply, there’s no reason a teams of such limited talents as Togo and Angola should be in the Cup over Nigeria and Cameroon. Togo and Angola, though, don’t have players playing in the top leagues in Europe so they may still feel a loyalty to their national team that helps them qualify for the World Cup over more talented opponents. The World Cup will be in South Africa in 2010. Under the sizzling African heat hopefully the Europeans will wilt and the Africans will probably finally have a performance befitting the massive amount of talent that exists on the continent.


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