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This time, no Africa: What brought an entire continent's hope down at World Cup

By Dileep PremachandranIn the 13 years that Brian Oliver spent as sports editor of The Observer, there was one sporting event he made it a point not to miss — football’s African Cup of Nations. The biennial competition was afforded the same gravitas as the European continental showpiece, with boots-on-ground reporting, features and interviews. Oliver himself soaked in the spectacle and was awed by the skills he found on the streets, where kids would nonchalantly juggle balls made from rags, orange peel and anything else that came to foot. 1990s was the decade when African football served notice. Cameroon’s odyssey at Italia ’90 set the tone, and the Nigerian displays in ’94 and ’98 made us wonder just how soon an African side would lift the ultimate prize. A generation on, we are still waiting, and glory feels further away than ever. For the first time since 1982, there will not be an African side in the second phase of the World Cup. Of the five African teams, Egypt and Morocco didn’t win a game. Nigeria and Tunisia won matches they were expected to, against Iceland and Panama. Only Senegal, desperately unlucky to miss the pre-quarters on fair-play criterion after finishing with the same number of points and goal difference as Japan, caused what might be considered an upset, beating Poland in their opening game. In contrast, the Asian teams have done better. Japan, despite the dismal final few minutes of keep-ball against Poland, were excellent in beating Colombia and the 2-2 draw with Senegal. South Korea sent Germans home, and Iran came this close to knocking Portugal out. Saudi Arabia rebounded from a 5-0 thrashing against Russia to beat Egypt. Australia, which is part of the Asian Football Confederation, finished winless, but they competed ferociously with France and Denmark. Why, then, hasn’t the African spring come to pass ? “Coaching and infrastructure are a huge problem, especially coaching,” says Oliver, still a passionate observer from afar. “It’s good to see Senegal have a Senegalese coach, but that’s almost unheard of. When players go to Europe, they stay in Europe, so all that knowledge is lost. That’s not the case in other continents.” Claude Le Roy, the Frenchman who coached Cameroon to the Cup of Nations title in 1988 and was a mentor to Roger Milla, laid it out even more clearly when he was interviewed a decade ago. “The longer the young players play in Africa, the better,” he told The Observer. “If they move too soon, have a format created for them [in Europe], everyone becomes the same. The best African players are those, like Milla, who didn’t go too early.” In African football’s most successful period, it was their skills, most of them honed on the streets, which made them such unpredictable opponents. With Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu and Ghana’s Abedi Pele, you never knew what you would get next. Since their heyday, European football scouts have tended to fetishise physique, perhaps blinded by the sight of the Hulk-like Senegalese footballer Papa Bouba Diop bulldozing his way through the French defence to score the winning goal in the 2002 World Cup opener.Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa scored two of the best goals of the World Cup against Iceland. But when he moved to Leicester City from CSKA Moscow in the summer of 2016, he started just 13 games. Adjusting to a new environment played a part, but so did the innate suspicion of maverick players who don’t fit into tactical straitjackets. Those attitudes have been taken to Africa by a generation of well-meaning coaches. Much of the flair that so enthralled us a generation ago has been coached out of young kids, in favour of adhering to a system. Before the Cup of Nations in 2012, Jonathan Wilson, who has also trekked across the continent over the past decade, wrote: “The football in Angola two years ago was rubbish. Only Egypt and Ghana played with anything like cohesion. Yes, Zambia flickered, Malawi were plucky and Gabon were doughty, but there was some miserable football played. Nigeria somehow sulked their way to the semi-final. Cameroon were ramshackle at the back and Samuel Eto’o’s lack of faith in his [Cameroon] team-mates led to him playing far too deep. Algeria played practically nihilistic football, timewasting their way to a semi-final – and were allowed to do so by weak refereeing.”These words have more than a ring of truth. Senegal may just have failed to make the last 16, but their displays under the guidance of Aliou Cisse, their captain in 2002, should serve as a template for the rest of the continent. Imitating European methods can only take African football so far. That threshold has been reached. To go further, to reach where we thought they would in 1998, there’s a need to go back to the roots, the unique rhythms and dreams not circumscribed by 4-4-2 and zonal marking.FIFA World Cup: Detailed Coverage

Source: ET

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