Where are Africa’s playmakers?

Twelve matches, seven losses, four ties, one win. So much for the African world cup.

Jay Jay Okocha

Despite home advantage and the dismal performances of so-called big teams like France and England, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana have not shown signs of seizing an opportunity to get beyond the quarter finals. The results—it is not certain any African team will reach the round of 16– show the African game to be in disarray. The rest of the footballing world, Asia and smaller European countries in Europe, has pushed on but African teams are failing to keep up. Many of the problems are neither new nor unfamiliar, with corruption, poor organization and big egos being most prominent.

Moreover the conventional wisdom–that the sizable African contingent in Europe’s best leagues is indicative that the continent can field world class national teams is, on current evidence, wrong. In fact, the demands of conforming to European leagues may be hindering the development of Africa’s national teams. African football appears to be in the midst of a period of low creativity that may not be cyclical.
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Consider: since Jay Jay Okocha retired from international football, none of Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria or Cote d’Ivoire have fielded a genuine playmaker that plays in the same role for his club team. Alexandre Song, whose forays and incisive passes are a key part of Cameroon’s attacking play, serves instead at Arsenal as a defensive shield so that Cesc Fabregas can get into scoring positions. Michael Essien sometimes makes powerful forward runs for Chelsea as he does for the Black Stars but he is called on mostly to hold the line so that Frank Lampard can support the attack. The same is true of Yahya Toure, another midfielder that carries the ball forward well despite occupying a primarily defensive role for Barcelona.

European leagues demand brawny, energetic midfield enforcers and ball winners (Patrick Vieira, the prototype, has been succeeded by the aforementioned as well as Abou Diaby, Mohamed Sissoko, Lassana Diarra and Seydou Keita) from the continent while relying on home grown or South American talent for guile and goal-scoring creativity. With playmakers like Obi Mikel and Alex Song denied the opportunity to hone their creativity week in, week out at their clubs it is no wonder African sides have struggled to break down defenses. Other creative midfielders, such as Stephen Appiah of Ghana, have struggled to find a European club over the last few years because of fitness.

Sadly Egypt, which consistently plays cohesive, attractive football, and which has dominated the African Nations Cup over the past few seasons, is absent from the World Cup. It is no coincidence that Egypt is one of very few African teams with creative midfielders able to deliver slide rule passes (see the video above) that unlock tight defences.

Mohamed Aboutreika

The Egyptian team benefits also from having many players that not only play domestically but which are also based at either Zamalek or Al Ahly, two of the Egyptian league’s top clubs. The Pharoahs’ creative midfielder, Mohamed Aboutreika, who would inject much needed creativity into any African side, need not worry about how to fit into a foreign system or whether he will be played out of position.

Still, Africans are not the only ones that make sacrifices to assimilate with the European game. Many Brazilians fail there because of a lack of discipline. Both Ronaldinho and Ronaldo have been accused of carrying too much weight and enjoying a party lifestyle at the expense of their football. However, Brazilians can opt to go home and play in their domestic league, a frequent occurrence following bust ups with European managers. Flamengo or Fluminense do not seem to represent a sharp diminution in skill level nor reduce the chances of gaining a World Cup place.

The Selecao currently fields more domestic players than Cote d’Ivoire and the same trend is true in Argentina; two of the country’s top playmakers in recent years, Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron, a member of the Albicelestes’ current squad, enjoyed at best mixed success in Europe and subsequently returned to Argentinian clubs. This, however, does not appear to be a feasible option for African players.

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