/ 2 September 2011

Blunting the African attack

The sight of Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, ball at his feet, running past defenders is unusual. It’s so far removed from the Toure we knew at Barcelona, where he stayed so much in his own half that it seemed there was a court injunction against him straying into opposition territory.

At City he has been relieved of the more destructive elements of his game (scything other players, intercepting passes, dispossessing opponents). Instead of nicking the ball and quickly passing it to more creative players, his manager, Roberto Mancini, has freed him and given him permission to roam.

The irony of it all is that it’s Mancini — an Italian manager more known for a conservative than an expansive interpretation of the game — who should rediscover this exciting side to Toure’s game.

Toure’s incarnation at Barcelona reminds one of Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel. It’s hard to believe that Chelsea paid Norwegian side Lyn Oslo £16-million when he was just 18 years old (£4-million went to Oslo and £12-million to Manchester United, who had signed a contract with him before Chelsea forced him to change his mind).

At the under-20 World Cup of 2005 Mikel’s Nigeria lost to Argentina, led by Lionel Messi. And Mikel was the tournament’s second-best player. Mikel, best man to Messi? Yet it’s difficult to tell what exactly Mikel is supposed to do at Chelsea. He has no bite in attack, no vision in his passes, and is notorious for his sideways passes. The blame for this must be borne by that arch-conservative, Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, who signed the young man and then set about trying to curb his attacking instincts. He wanted to resurrect Mikel as Claude Makelele, the Democratic Republic of Congo-born Frenchman.

At Madrid Makalele mugged opponents of the ball and quickly laid it off to players like Zinedine Zidane. He did this dirty, thankless job so well that his role — then variously known as that of the water carrier or destroyer — came to be known as the “Makelele role”, at once a compliment and a burden.

Here was a player who was so good at his job a role was named after him. Yet the downside was it restricted muscular Africans to menial, blue-collar work on the football pitch. Even Mikel, a giant of a man (1.88m, about 80kg) and also boasting a footballing brain, was turned into a beast of burden.

It’s a phenomenon replicated in other top European teams. Invariably, most African players are defenders or defensively minded. Barcelona’s Seydou Keita has been converted into a defensive midfielder. When he was at Portsmouth, Madrid’s black Frenchman, Lassana Diarra, played a more advanced role. At Madrid, when he is not on the bench, he plays close to his team’s central defenders. Then there is Michael Essien at Chelsea.

What is the effect of this on the African game? If you watched the Africa Cup of Nations you would have noticed that Mikel wore jersey number 10, the number on the back of the heartbeat of most teams, and played in an advanced role. That number revealed his ambition, suppressed at Chelsea. Essien plays in a more advanced role for his country than he does at Chelsea and so does Keita for his motherland, Mali.

It’s no surprise that, when faced with good opponents, these players won’t make much of a difference for their teams. They remind you of that man who is always wearing jeans and T-shirts and is then expected to wear a suit for a ceremony. His discomfort is palpable.

The players are playing roles they are not accustomed to. It’s not such a coincidence that over the past 10 years — when the imprint of sub-Saharan African footballers has become more visible in Europe — North African teams have dominated the Africa Cup of Nations. Tunisia won it once, in 2004, and Egypt has won it three times in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Most of Egypt’s players are based in their local leagues and making them gel into a team is relatively easy. Egyptian fans would probably revolt if the national coach fielded a footballer who normally plays as a defensive midfielder for Egyptian club Zamalek in an advanced position for his national team. Yet coaches of African national teams do it regularly.

European money, to be sure, has been good for African players. Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o is set to be the best-paid player on the planet, earning about R4.1-million a week at Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala. But has it been good for the African game?