West is best, East is hopeless
‘I have never been so scared in my life. The crowds were crazy, crazy to get us, to get anyone foreign, anyone who looked like an official.
The police got there in the end, and there was gunfire for 20 minutes.
That dispersed the crowds, but it was close. For a while I thought was going to be killed.”
Those are the words of a European scout who nearly didn’t make it back from the African under-20 championship in Ethiopia in 2001. He does a lot of work throughout Africa and does not want to be named, but his version of events was verified by another talent watcher from Italy who was there.
The rioting was caused when Egypt and Cameroon — knowing a draw would be enough for both to qualify for that year’s World Youth Cup in Argentina — played training-ground football with no intention of scoring a goal. If they drew, Ethiopia would be out. There were 60 000 in the stadium in Addis Ababa and as many locked outside.
The game was halted and the teams told to play properly. They did, for five minutes, then returned to their tip-tap game. Suddenly the crowd were on the pitch, streaming towards the stand. Players and officials ran for their lives.
Their planned escape in a taxi failed when crowds battered the vehicle and blocked its route. The men were hit with sticks, shoved and thumped as they ran for the nearest hotel and a tense five-hour wait for order to be restored.
Later, with the police having closed down the city centre, the Italian went back to his hotel. He was mistaken for an Egyptian and attacked. He told his assailants he was Italian, at which they said, ‘Yes, and look what Mussolini did to our country!” and gave him another beating.
In a happy ending for Ethiopia, they did make it to the World Youth Cup where they beat South Africa in a replayed game. Egypt did, too, after a reprise of their match against Cameroon, this time, though, in secret and after being told that a draw would not be tolerated.
Which goes to show that they do care about football in East Africa, if a little too much at times. And they can play, a point emphasised by the presence here in Tunisia of Kenya and Rwanda. It is the first time since 1976 that two teams from the east have qualified for the finals.
Their presence is a surprise, judging by the figures from a recent survey of migration of African footballers to Europe. A huge land mass, in a part of the world with a strong football culture, is nothing more than a desert when it comes to developing players for football’s global market.
Nwankwo Kanu, Austin ‘Jay Jay” Okocha, Joseph Yobo, Kolo Touré, Samuel Kuffour, El-Hadji Diouf, Lauren, Geremi, Stephan Appiah, Samual Eto’o ... the list of West African talent is seemingly endless. And the big names from the past, unless you go right back to Eusebio Ferreira da Silva, from Mozambique, are also from West Africa: Roger Milla, Abedi Pele, George Weah.
There have been plenty from the North, too, notably Nourredine Naybet of Morocco, Rabah Madjer of Algeria and, had he chosen his ‘other” nationality, Zinedine Zidane.
And the South — Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Steven Pienaar, Benni McCarthy, Quentin Fortune and the latest find, Tottenham’s Mbulelo Mabizela, who lined up for South Africa last week against a Nigeria team that would have featured half a dozen Premiership players before Celestine Babayaro and Yakubu Aiyegbeni were dropped for ‘breaking camp rules”.
The top East African prospect, Denis Oliech, a teenage Kenyan striker, plays in Qatar. The region’s best older player is in Belgium’s second division, and the search for an East African in Britain leads to Andy Iga, Sutton United’s goalkeeper who has a British passport, but is eligible for Uganda and may play for his country of birth.
A swathe of Africa in which more than one-quarter of the continent’s 700-million people live has produced no players of note. Why? Is it because the colonials preferred cricket or the Africans prefer running? Is there too much tribalism, too much conflict? Is the football culture different from that of West Africa? Is there too little investment?
Perhaps to some extent, although football is just as big in the East as it is in the West; despite all the Olympic glory Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have enjoyed. The most obvious explanation is that put forward by academics in the United States, South Africa and Europe: the West African physique is far better suited to the demands of modern football than the slighter build further east.
This will doubtless be interpreted as racist in some quarters, as it was when the same argument arose a few years ago in a study of Olympic medallists. The best sprinters are from West Africa, the distance runners from East Africa, and white men can’t run, was the headline interpretation.
‘Many in sports physiology believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role. But the genes are what counts most,” says a top scientist in human performance research, Bengt Saltin, of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre.
Jon Entine, an American anthropologist who was at the forefront of the running controversy, says: ‘It’s not a surprise that East Africans have not been good soccer players. In fact, they are among the world’s worst. They are dominated by the Rift Valley, the highland people, and their body type is different from West Africans. Not race, but body type, basic anthropology.
‘It’s not to do with culture. To suggest colonial background and cultural differences are a major factor is ridiculous. History suggests it won’t change. Increased levels of interest, hero worship and money will not change the body type, and will, therefore, not do enough to make a big difference.
‘You simply won’t find elite footballers in any large numbers in East Africa.”
Tim Noakes, a South African professor of sports science and exercise, loosely agrees with Entine. Only if football ever moves towards cultivating smaller players with great endurance, he says, will East Africa produce more players. European clubs are desperate to find ‘strong, muscular, aggressive types”, according to one scout, and they look in any part of the world where they can find them. But not East Africa.
The size issue was graphically illustrated recently when Senegal played Kenya and towered over the East Africans, easily out-muscling them on the way to a comfortable 3-0 win.
‘Clubs want to know about Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, not about Kenya,” says Nicholas MacGowan, a scout working for Manchester United at the Nations Cup. ‘There has been talk of setting up academies in the East, but nothing has happened yet.”
MacGowan was at Kenya’s matches in Bizerte to look at Oliech, the 19-year-old striker who has 32 caps at all age levels and is scoring freely for his club in Qatar. Reports that Oliech had been offered a trial at Old Trafford were inaccurate, and he is short of Premiership potential at the moment.
But his dream of a move to Europe might materialise and turn a few heads towards his homeland.
‘I disagree with the scientists about physique,” says Oliech. ‘It has nothing to do with physique. It’s lack of exposure. East Africa is a virgin field for scouts, and there is a lot of untapped talent.”
Otto Pfister, a German who has won trophies coaching national teams and clubs all over Africa and led Ghana to the world under-17 title in 1991, is better qualified than any European coach to comment.
He agrees with Oliech: ‘There are talents all over Africa. Thousands and thousands of them all over the continent, but it takes time to look, and no one seems to have the time.”
Will it ever change? Perhaps, given the appearance of Kenya and Rwanda here, even if they have not won a game between them. A Dutch coach who ran the Ajax academy in Ghana has recently moved to Addis Ababa to take charge of an Ethiopian club, and a Juventus scout, Domenico Ricci, says: ‘The money goes where the wind blows in football, and the wind will blow to East Africa. It’s a question of time.”
Those Ethiopians who went to Argentina three years ago might, perhaps, have produced a player or two. Hard to know, because 12 of them disappeared when their team went out at the group stage. They were based in a remote Indian town, and, according to the scout who fled the mob in Addis and followed the team to Argentina, they were not stolen by clubs or ruthless agents.
‘They all found a girl, that’s all.” —