/ 15 February 2008

The riddle of the sphinx

First things first: the best team won. Many, including myself, dismissed Egypt’s chances of defending their crown because of a ropey qualifying campaign and because they lost a number of important players from their 2006 squad.

But the Pharaohs showed that their domestic league continues to cultivate quality footballers, and top European clubs are surely now mulling moves for the likes of Mohamed Aboutrika, Hosny Abd Rabou and Wael Gomaa.

The stirring football and adventurous tactics made this the most prolific Africa Cup of Nations in terms of goals and the most enjoyable football spectacle since Euro 2000 — despite many of the billboard names failing to justify the hype. El Hadji Diouf was symbolic of a disgracefully disappointing Senegal side, John Utaka didn’t turn up, Frederic Kanoute and Kolo Toure appeared to be hampered by injuries, and Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o — despite being top scorer — wavered between dynamic commitment and showbiz strops.

In their place, less familiar names emerged, such as Angola winger Ze Kalanga and the country’s striking duo of Flavio and Manucho; Zambia midfielder Felix Katongo; tricky Guinean Souleymane Youla; several slick South Africans; Alexandre Song — the wise-passing teenager at the heart of Cameroon’s midfield; and Frederic Mendy, perhaps the only Senegalese to emerge from the tournament with his reputation enhanced. But individuals don’t win tournaments, teams do. And managers make teams.

Hasan Shehata stuck with the 3-5-2 formation he used in 2006 and didn’t bend it to suit one star individual. He memorably shouted Mido down two years ago, and this time around Shehata kept the gifted but self-indulgent Mohamed Zidan on a tight leash, ensuring he wrang the best possible performances from the striker.

No manager came up with a way of disrupting Egypt’s flow or stifling their creativity.

Just as Egypt’s players should be sought, so too should their manager. But I can’t think of any top-flight European club that has ever put an African in the managerial seat (apart from Pape Diouf at Marseille on a caretaker basis).

There are rumours that Benfica are about to become the first by hiring Luis Goncalves, who has worked wonders with Angola. Shehata should surely be wooed too.

Of course, it’s not just Europeans who are reluctant to hire African managers. Only four of the 16 countries competing in the Cup of Nations were run by Africans. Why the obsession with European coaches?

I’ve put that question to hundreds of African players, administrators, journalists and fans over many years and I always get the same answers:

  • No African has experience managing clubs at the top level, such as in the Champions League — therefore an African manager would not know how to handle, nor get respect from, the likes of Michael Essien or Nwankwo Kanu.

    But surely that would depend on the manager? If he had the charisma and knowledge of a leader then he would convince his charges to follow, just as Jose Mourinho, Gerard Houllier and others did. Furthermore, what Champions League experience do the likes of Claude Le Roy, Otto Pfister, Reinhard Fabisch and Arie Schans have?

  • There is so much suspicion between ethnic groups in many African countries that only a European, who’s perceived as neutral, can effectively manage many of them.

  • Local coaches would be more corruptible than Europeans because the FAs don’t pay them as much. I remember telling Festus Onigbende, the Nigeria manager at the 2002 World Cup, that this was a common reply to my question.

    He shook his head, said he’d often heard it too and declared: ”If that’s the case, shouldn’t we demand not that our FAs hire European managers but that they give equal pay to Africans?”

Ghana have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times, each time with a Ghanaian at the helm. Fred Osam-Duodu, now in charge of Ghana’s U-17 team the Black Starlets, won it in 1982.

”Yet now they keep giving the job to Europeans even though only Africans have been successful at it,” he lamented when I bumped into him after yesterday’s final. ”If they don’t think Africans are good enough any more, they should do something about it — if they can find $40 000 a month to pay European coaches, then they can also find money to nurture local coaches.

The Ghanaian FA, for example, should be paying for local coaches to do Uefa badges and other such courses abroad to complement their local knowledge. That’s the next step for African football.” — Â