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Africa’s World Cup woes

Every four years Africa goes to football’s World Cup. Every four years Africa returns empty-handed. Perhaps it’s time to ask why.

The first rays of hope emerged in Italia 1990, when Cameroon arrived at the tournament with a bang. They managed to progress beyond the group stage – from a group that contained holders Argentina – and gave then-mighty England a fright in the quarter-finals before succumbing.

In 1994 and 1998, Nigeria flattered to deceive. In 2002 it was Senegal’s turn – they managed to get as far as the quarter-finals. Many began hailing the arrival of Africa on football’s grandest stage. It was only a matter of (very little) time before an African nation would lift the greatest trophy of all.

If only. Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal did not even qualify for the finals this time. Sixteen years after that false dawn, we are yet to see the clear light of day. In the current tourney being held in Germany, a total of five African teams participated. Four of them fell at the first hurdle, failing to get past the initial group stage. Angola scored just one goal; Cote d’Ivoire managed just one victory; Tunisia recorded only one point; and hapless Togo returned home without troubling the scorers. So: four teams, one victory, 9 goals netted, 17 conceded.

Ghana were the exception this year, having embarrassed the Czech Republic and tormented the Americans. But they found themselves up against 5-time champions Brazil in the knock-out stage. Still, the optimists were crowing incessantly that Ghana had the ability to defeat an overrated Brazil side, and then go on to ultimate glory.

We’ve been there before, but we forget. Ghana were duly despatched by a margin of three goals to nil. And it could have been six, had the Brazilians not started fooling around in the final minutes.

The manner of the defeat was telling. Twice, the Brazilians strolled through an extremely naïve offside trap that failed to spring; both times, they scored. And Ghana did have their chances, for Brazil’s defence is indeed vulnerable. In fact Ghana managed a full 18 shots on goal. But not one ball went into the Brazilian net. Most threatened to leave the stadium and go into orbit to join other heavenly bodies.

What we are good at, nevertheless, are lame excuses and stale hubris. It didn’t take us long. Ghana’s coach blamed the referee: he should have just put on a Brazilian shirt, said he. Angola’s coach was upbeat: “Everyone involved in Angolan football and the people at home can be very proud of the players.” And, commenting on his team’s insipid 1-1 draw with lowly Iran: “We were not intelligent enough to defend our 1-0 lead but I’m still proud of my players.”

The problem with hubris? The next destination is nemesis. And this is what we never learn. In our headlong battle to blame referees, the system, the world order, the sky and the moon for Africa’s underachievement, we forget to look at the one thing that matters: ourselves.

Was it a referee that caused Togo’s woes? That country went into the tournament embroiled in a payments fiasco. Its coach threatened to quit on the eve of the first match because of a dispute with Togo’s national body over pay. The players followed suit and were ready to sit out their remaining games. The world body, FIFA, was forced to step in and guarantee direct payments to the players, without going through the Togolese football federation. Familiar, but thoroughly embarrassing.

Interestingly, most of the members of the African squads present at the World Cup actually play their club football in Europe. Indeed, Europe’s top leagues are filled with African players. We are the manpower provider of world football.

And therein lies the problem. We are still primary producers, in football as in everything else. We supply raw material. The adding of value: the processing, the finishing, the marketing, the branding all happens elsewhere. And, surprise, surprise, the real money is also made elsewhere.

We are merely the ‘plantation’ in this global supply chain. We supply the basic commodity, watch others refine it, and then consume the final product on our TV screens back home. A familiar tale, repeated in industry after industry.

When will we become the adders of value, the thinkers and the strategists? When we can learn the science of management and the art of innovation, and when we can apply these disciplines with dedication and commitment. Otherwise we are pawns on someone else’s chessboard; putty in the hands of global marketers.

What stops us? Just our own inadequacies. Here’s what I wrote in this column in 2004, when Kenya crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations in ignominious fashion: “This failure to give priority to meaningful preparation, insightful planning, tight organisation, efficient processes and adequate motivation is a national disease. We have simply stopped giving importance to these things. Instead, we focus on individual status and personal enrichment. In Kenya, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

Wherever there is a national activity with a pot of money attached – be it football, cricket, civic services, or a development project – a motley crew of undesirable characters rapidly congregates. These people are always driven by self-importance and personal gain, and almost never seem to have to good of the game or the people of the country at heart. Their managerial skills are usually measurable with a very small ruler. Yet somehow they will dominate, for years if not decades…In the economy as in football, we must expect many more three-nil thrashings if we allow this class of manager to stay in power.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, if you’ll pardon my French. It need not be this way. There are three things we need to do, sharpish.

First, we must face the brutal facts. We don’t cut the mustard, so let’s cut the hubris. Acknowledging the reality is always the first step in the treatment. Let us walk up to the mirror, and stare the problem in the face.

Second, let us indeed learn from the world. Sending our boys to play in the top leagues, and recruiting top coaches to train us, is no bad thing. That is how skills transfer is done. But crucially, the skills must come back home. All those Oliechs and Drogbas out there have to come and give it all back – not blow their time and money on bling-bling and nubile blondes. And when we seek management talent, let us not waste our time recruiting cast-offs and second-stringers from the west. Let us be bold enough to bring in the best and learn from them.

Third, let us gather up all the inept and grasping charlatans we allow to manage our national institutions, and show them a permanent red card. They, not foreign foes, are the ones tackling us from behind. Africa cannot be great in the world if it is ill-managed at home. The whistle is lying before you: pick it up and blow it.

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