Lessons from Russia
On the morning of 29 June, Senegal woke up to a heartrending headline in Le Soleil, one of the country’s major newspapers. Two words— “La désillusion” (“The Disappointment”)—summed up the paper’s response to the country’s poor showing against Colombia, which ended 0–1, in the crucial World Cup Group H match in the Russian city of Samara.
Le Soleil captured the mood of millions of not only Senegalese, but also that of Africans all over the continent whose hopes that an African team would go beyond the first rounds in the 2018 World Cup were soundly dashed.
Senegal’s football team, the Lions of Teranga, was Africa’s last hope at the global tournament held once every four years. While the other African teams—Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia—were booted from the pitch early on, the Lions of Teranga seemed headed for victory after mauling Poland 2–1 and tying with Japan 2–2. But a final victory was not to be.
Mohamed Bah of Freetown, Sierra Leone, had saved up money to watch the games on a large screen in one of the makeshift viewing halls. He was crushed by Senegal’s loss. “It was painful,” he confessed.
Why the dismal performance?
This year’s World Cup was the first since 1982 in which an African team failed to get beyond the group stage. At the 1982 finals in Spain, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, the continent’s most competent team that year, exited without losing a match. The team drew 1–1 with eventual champion Italy and 0–0 with both Poland
In 1982, Algeria defeated West Germany 2–1, downed Chile 3–2, but lost to Austria 2–0.
Why did the African teams perform so badly in Russia? Some pundits blame African teams for using the wrong tactics, but the problems run deeper than the actions on the pitch.
Africa’s football flaws have been visible for a long time. Most domestic leagues are not run efficiently, forcing the best players to seek greener pastures abroad. Overreliance on foreign coaches unaccustomed to the particulars of African football do not help matters.
And then there is corruption. In June this year, an investigative documentary produced by renowned Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas revealed how match officials and football managers in Africa demanded hefty bribes to influence a game’s outcome.
Among those dragged down in the scandal was the chair of the Ghana Football Association and vice president of the Confederation of African Football, Kwesi Nyantakyi, who was seen in a hotel room taking a $65,000 bribe from a supposed businessman seeking to sponsor the Ghanaian football league for up to $15 million over three years.
After the exposé, Mr. Nyantakyi resigned his positions and rescinded his membership in the executive council of football’s governing body, FIFA.
Many African societies still mischaracterize athletes as people unable to withstand the rigours of formal education. In many cases, those who wish to continue in sport drop out of school. Football academies have been springing up in many countries, providing opportunities for young people to acquire an education while honing their athletic skills.
Diambars in Senegal, Planet Soccer in Burkina Faso and Kadji Sports in Cameroon are some of the recently established football academies on the continent.
Some have suggested that African teams lack confidence in games against renowned football legends such as Argentina, Brazil and Germany.
Kalusha Bwalya, a former African footballer of the year who once captained the Zambian national team, admitted in a BBC Radio interview: “We have the talent, but we have a lack of belief in ourselves.
“I watched Nigeria play very well in the second half, but I ask myself why they couldn’t start the game like that in the first half,” Mr. Bwalya reflected. He called on Africa’s sporting federations to work with their coaches to address this problem.
Lamin Bangura, one of the most successful coaches in Guinea and a former Sierra Leone international who played two Africa Cup of Nations games, pointed to a tendency to neglect indigenous coaches. “We have to ask ourselves why African coaches are not allowed to take charge of the national teams.”
In an interview with Africa Renewal, Mr. Bangura asked, “What is the difference between the foreign coaches of the other African teams [Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria] and the Africans who coached Senegal and Tunisia? All the teams were out in the first round.”
It used to be that players weren’t paid well enough to play hard. These days, most African players ply their trade in Europe and are very well paid. Senegal’s team has the heaviest wallets among the African representatives at the World Cup, according to Transfermarkt, an authoritative website on football. The combined worth of Senegal’s team is about $350 million, while the combined worth of Egypt’s is around $115 million.
Funds are key
Africa’s domestic leagues, which produce the best talents for national teams, need money to survive. Preparing for the World Cup requires a budget, and for many countries, investing in sport is not as urgent a priority as addressing poverty-related problems.
Despite Africa’s disappointing show in Russia, satellite and cable television companies in Africa will have raked in considerable earnings. The 2018 World Cup is expected to take in about $6 billion in revenue for FIFA, up 25 percent from 2014. As many as 3.2 billion people watched the tournament, and broadcast revenue had been projected to rise to $3 billion.
Some fear that satellite and cable TV’s disproportionate focus on European leagues may be doing harm to the growth of Africa’s domestic leagues. And for this FIFA World Cup season, the battle was on for the eyeballs of African viewers.
Eyes on 2022
A week before the soccer party kicked off in Russia, Kenyan telecom giant Safaricom inked a live-streaming deal with Kwesé, which is rapidly positioning itself as a pan-African market leader. This meant that fans could watch matches live on their phones.
“We want our customers to watch the biggest sports spectacle in the world on their mobile devices for the first time ever,” Safaricom’s acting director, Charles Kare Wanjohi, said in Nairobi.
Moving forward, Africa’s football administrators must make amends for the disappointment in Russia. Morocco’s failed bid to host the World Cup for the fifth time (losing to the joint bids of the Canada, Mexico and the United States) adds salt to the wound.
On the eve of the 1970 Africa Cup of Nations, the late former FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous declared that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. That did not happen. Five World Cup finals into the new century, Mr. Rous’s prediction still rings hollow.
But hope reigns supreme. World Cup 2022 in Qatar is next. It will be time for Africa to test its abilities. The time to begin preparations is today.