2000/2001 - The crisis of the big West African national teams

Ghana - Nigeria - Cameroon  JUNE 2001
2000/2001 - The crisis of the big West (and Central) African national teams -
An attempt to approach some of the problems

A.What happened?

B.The parallels

  1. the question of a long term policy and the role of the FA's
  2. the discussion about European professionals vs. home based players
  3. indigenous coach or foreigner?
C.The consequence?

A. What happened?
World Cup qualifiers, Group B, April 2001. Nigeria and Ghana, two of the giants of African football have fallen behind and cannot qualify for the World Cup by their own powers anymore. They trail Liberia and Sudan, both poor countries and football minnows, of which neither have reached the final eight at an African Nations Cup since 1976.
Ghana has been switching their coach several times the past twelve months and the line-up in almost every match. Nigeria became involved in a power struggle between various forces which seemed to have evoked more attention than the qualification matches themselves and which was only dissolved through an embarassing loss at Sierra Leone. With the consequence of Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere was fired and replaced, no two weeks before a crucial match against Liberia.
The same time, further East, in Cameroon, dissatisfaction grew with the performances of the national team, despite a perfect record. Fans were unhappy with the promotion of local Olympic gold coach Jean-Paul Akono to head coach of the national team which before had been successfully run by Frenchman Pierre Lechantre. Later Akono would become replaced by Lechantre who himself would become fired only a few weeks later.


B. The parallels
All three cases show symptoms of the same problems, even when the particular results of the three teams are different.
The reasons for this different results is rooted in the actual difference between the teams and in the actual difference of the power and results of their opponents, sometimes even in the sheer accidental character of the turn of events in individual matches. 
But in all three cases we can witness similar common dilemmas, similar discussions, and similar paradoxes.

1) the question of a long term policy and the role of the FA's
2) the discussion about European professionals vs. home based players
3) indigenous coach or foreigner?

1) the question of a long term policy and the role of the FA's
If the various comments and reports can be trusted, all three countries suffer from the lack of a long term policy and poor preperation before matches. Both recently fired coaches of Ghana and Nigeria had accused their FA of working against them and providing miserable organisation. Often coaches have to go to court to get remaining salaries after having been fired, as it is again in Ghana's case.
Too often coaches seem to be considered as something like witch doctors who are thought to turn water into wine (what a lot of coaches indeed promise who apply for jobs) and later get accused of having turned wine into water.
Nigeria, well prepared, with the best players together (what had been the case), and Ghana weakened, should have won this group easily. The idea that any coach could have 'prevented' them from leaving a team like Liberia behind, with their collection of players from minor important leagues around the world, is just ridiculous. 
A second danger in this way of thinking could be that upcoming better results get attached too easily to the coach-firing scenario. This is an oversimplified thinking, further covering the true misery.
Nevertheless Bonfrere's firing had been inevitable as Nigeria had been paralysed by the power struggle and had faced hardly other perspectives than sooner or later create a desaster which would result in such a decision.

A national team is only together for very limited time. To reach a certain quality, consistency is much more important than the question whether a particular player has been left out or not. This is one of the reasons why France is at the top. 
The players have been older when winning the European championship in 2000 (than the Nigerians are today) and had included players like Deschamps who had not been in best form but important for the coherence and functioning cooperation of the group. In 1996 later success coach Aimee Jaquet had been harshly criticised for his policy but in 1998, after four years he had built something really strong to stay. 
One has to see that one year national coach is somewhat like 5 years club coach because of the few matches and few weeks they are together. 

France is also famous for their youth program. In Africa Mali and Burkina Faso, two poor countries and no football giants recently have caught up with Ghana and Nigeria on youth level, a signal that the established have neglected growing their talents, and rather seem to consider success as naturally given. 
But a youth program has to begin at least 10 years before it has an impact on a national team. It is very demanding to ask for such a long breath in many African countries and in difficult economical circumstances.

African Soccer reported that Cameroons Under 17 team for the African championship had been poorly prepaired, mentioning unpaid bonusses, lack of kits and boots and no preperation matches. The Olympic team had been said to have won despite wrangle over bonusses and the national team is actually suffering from the back and forth changes between coaches of different philosophies.

Preperation matches do not seem to be possible for the Nigerian national team, too. It seems any appointed match gets cancelled and postponed. Again Bonfrere and the FA accused each other. But what counts is the result. At the same time Egypt stages preperation tournaments and Tunisia has an extensive acclimatization camp at Reunion for a Madagascar away match.

2) the discussion about European professionals vs. home based players
Common in all three countries is the discussion about the professionals and their attitude. The professionals are often accused of a lack of discipline, commitment, and modesty in and around matches.
In Ghana and Nigeria the call for the integration of homebased players had grown louder and louder and Ghana had stunned international observers when they had played their qualifier against Nigeria with a squad featuring entirely home based players.

Now particular properties of the situation have to be addressed here to understand the dilemma.
All those professionals live and work in a totally different world (Europe) and have a different view on things than the homebased players and coaches. They are all caught in the club vs. country dilemma, under pressure from both sides to deliver the best. Often they are suffering from their decisions, whatever they are.
They all have to travel a lot which is very tyring and they have problems readapting to the African conditions of a problematic climate for their kind of game, playing on much more difficult grounds and after only one or two training sessions.
This damages their performances in single matches like the World Cup qualifiers. When it comes to tournaments they normally should reach a much higher level - either by more extensive preperation or in the process of the tournament.

It is difficult to blend them with homebased players or have them cooperate with homebased coaches - they have different views on the world and speak a different language of football. Educated in European clubs they had to learn a different philosophy and often feel superior to their homebased countrymen. This again is understood by those as a complacant behaviour and leads to further conflicts.

There is no doubt they are the superior players as any homebased player who turns out to be a talent will immediately be recruited and will hardly refuse the European job. This makes a squad of homebased players a paradox. If they are successful, they will not be homebased for very long. They will move abroad, they will have to fight for a place in the team of their new club, be in the club vs. country conflict and will develop the same symptoms.

Even an integration of more than one or two talents from home clubs is not easy. The professionals then have to adapt to the level of the home league and foreign coaches find it much easier to work with 'Europeans' anyway as they have the same education.

This is what makes integration of homebased players difficult while it is  dangerously profitable in the same time: the national team is THE transfer display for homebased players and a lot of people can earn money with it. This is another point which can carry trouble into a team. 

Considering this and taking into account also the very limited time to build a team, the policy of Bonfrere concerning the selection of players was so only logical. But several other factors added up and a maybe unlucky match at Sierra Leone then was too much when in other cases it only had been a repairable slip.

Nigerian supporters might point to Ghana here, where homebased players had successfully been tested. But the success did not come with the blend, it came only after all professionals had been barred from the team and this special Ghanaian case is rather the exception to the rule: first of all it was not a home based squad mixed from the various clubs. It was more or less the entire club line up of Hearts Of Oak Accra, second of all this is an exceptional squad with no parallel in Nigeria, and third of all it had been the idea of a necessary new build up based on a particular group of players which know their ways of cooperation and coherence to make up for individual deficits. A unique chance for a build up of a future team and shortlived in the same time: not only that it had to defend against the resistance of all those who want to see Ghanas best professionals play in the team, the concentration on one home club had to result in further opponency from the supporters of the others. 
The discussions which player from what club (and what ethnic background) can become at least as destructive as the discussion around the European professionals. At least those often add up to an easier managable size of potential candidates.

3) indigenous coach or foreigner?
Another epic discussion is the appointment of foreign coaches. 
Here old rules still apply:
Pros: Foreign coaches are more neutral (at first moment) concerning most of the problems resulting from ethnic grouping or even club rivalries. Foreign coaches speak the (football) language of the professionals and often have underwent a better education, considering technical aspects. They might have better access to modern developments on the medical sector and could provide a superior personal infrastrucure monitoring the European based professionals. They have a better chance to become accepted as authority by those professionals than indigenous coaches..
Cons: They have problems adapting to the particular circumstances and mentalities. There is a number of foreign coaches which have been quite successful working with African teams what not necessarily means they had been successful with European teams before. Many good coaches are scared away by the reports of their colleagues problems with the associations during or after contracts. If they have to integrate homebased players they often run into difficulties. In relation to African coaches they are expensive and their wages are subject to constant discussions amplifying a critical view. Here they are welcome as a vehicle to transfer responsibilities upon. Hiring an expensive coach can be an alibi for association officials. 

Often the work of coaches is considered rather by single results which to some extent are pure accident. And often the coaches are taken who promise the most. Here foreign coaches often more work as directors to manage a complete build up program, an effort which abruptly becomes terminated when the first national team produces bad results. 


C. The consequences?
Some of the dilemmas and paradoxes are difficult or even impossible to dissolve. They lie in the international calender and football market. 

Teams like Nigeria and Cameroon have no realistic alternative to producing full professional squads run by foreign coachs or coaches who at least are fully accepted by the professionals.

The associations have to get beyond the alibi of coach hiring and firing and try to develop and provide programs and preperations that make success less dependable on the coaching question.

Nigeria have to understand that success is not automatic on the side of the big one, there are 11 pitched against 11. Resultwise the country yet has had only one real exceptional team which has won that single Nations Cup away from home 1994 and has qualified for Nigerias sole two World Cup appearances 1994 and 1998. 

Africa is not alone with the above listed problems. Especially Brazil has developed all similar symptoms since the loss of the World Cup final 1998 including team inconsistency, coaching changes, oversea vs homebased players discussions, and corruption signs connected to national team callups of homebased players and their purchase by European clubs in succession. 

Of course the damages to the particular teams are relative to the circumstances and the basic qualities, Brazil will qualify anyway. But at the moment they are not on the level they had once been. 


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