The standard of the 2013 Afcon thus far indicates that the game on the continent has not improved over the past two decades, and that widespread changes are needed
By Peter Staunton
The Academie MimoSifcom in Abidjan has produced a preponderance of outstanding talent for the Cote d'Ivoire national team. Salomon Kalou, the Toure brothers, Didier Zokora and just about any other Elephant of the past 15 years came through the ranks at the ASEC Mimosas feeder club.
But the pre-eminent assembly line of footballers in Africa is malfunctioning. Once upon a time, Goal.com's Kingsley Kobo recounts, scouts used to trawl the city streets and the hinterland for talent with which to stock the academy.
Nowadays, academies have sprouted up across Abidjan but the focus is not, primarily, on developing high-class footballers. The focus is on commanding enrolment money from families who can scarcely afford to pay.
Fees as high as €750 are required for a place at these academies. There are more than 25 in Abidjan alone and though recent legislation requires the inclusion of an academic curriculum, talented children from poverty-stricken backgrounds are no longer able to attend. Consequently, potential professionals can no longer move up the development ladder at home. Budding Ivorian professionals are increasingly taking their chances in footballing backwaters in the hope of one day making it to Europe.
It means that the current golden generation of Elephants is likely to be the last for a while. The likes of Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure are not getting any younger. It is not easy to replace quality with quality even with the best infrastructures. Didier Konan will never be as good as Drogba; to some extent it must be accepted that Africa has just lived through its most productive phase of individual quality.
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Regardless, Cote d'Ivoire are 14th in the current Fifa ranking and qualified for the last two World Cups with what is largely regarded as their best-ever squad. They won two matches out of six, against teams already eliminated, and have never gone beyond the groups. That is the best effort that Africa's best team can muster.
Egypt, meanwhile, dominated Africa from 2006 to 2010 but could not even qualify for the World Cup. When they did compete against external competition, at the Confederations Cup, they were exposed as second-rate. To that end, it is difficult to ascertain just how good African international football is. There has been a fall-off in the standard of the international game the world over and Africa has not been spared the regression.
Egypt's continental success and that of Zambia at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations owed more to organisation and a defined system than to individual talent. Often, the Pharaohs outran and outwitted opponents of a supposedly superior calibre. Reactive play, like Zambia's, has been replicated across the continent and now minnows expect to compete against traditional heavyweights by sticking to a game-plan and executing it cleanly. The evidence has been borne out at the 2013 Afcon with tentativeness and caution apparent in the opening round of matches, which included consecutive 0-0 draws in Group A. African tournament football at the senior level has become insipid and dull.
Cameroon's team of 1990 were the first African side of the modern era to make an indelible impact at a World Cup and they did it with a breathtaking vibrancy. They reached the quarter-finals before being narrowly beaten by England. The Indomitable Lions, coached by Valeri Nepomniachi, were expected to lead out a fresh batch of African teams towards winning the World Cup.
Nigeria's displays in 1994 were captivating but they fell short against Italy in the second round; politicking meant they never fulfilled their promise. Ghana went to the last eight in 2010 before elimination on penalties. The Black Stars, however, were lucky to emerge from their group. Indeed, they were the only one of six African teams to emerge from their pool. Hardly inspiring. African football, truthfully, at the senior level and using the World Cup as a yardstick, has not moved on in 23 years since Cameroon's Roger Milla-inspired foray into the last eight.
At under-age levels there have been flickers of inspiration - with victories for Nigeria Under-17 in 2007 and for Ghana Under-20 in 2009, but the impetus of those wins has not translated to the seniors. None of Nigeria's U17s play in the current senior set-up but there is more encouragement for Ghana, whose class of 2009 are progressing.
The problem for west Africa's football giants remains keeping those strong generations together and making them competitive in full internationals.
As the legacy of Nepomniachi would suggest, the impact of foreign coaches on Africa has been enormous. However, it has not always been positive for the game's development. Often, European coaches impose their wills on African players successfully - like Herve Renard at Zambia - but the trend of Europeans coaching in Africa has come at the expense of effective local coaching.
Of the top teams at the Afcon, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa are utilising local coaches but there has been a tendency to overlook and even jettison that element. The coaching pathway varies from country to country.
In Cote d'Ivoire, for example, there are no elite coaching academies and very few programmes exist to hone the skills of practicing local coaches.
Lucio Antunes, coach of Cape Verde, fits the category of coaches who obtained their certificates abroad and returned to work in their homeland.
Meanwhile, in Ghana, Caf has provided training to help improve the standard of coaching. The presence of James Kwesi Appiah on the Black Stars bench in place of a Serbian must, therefore, be seen as a boon.
However, for Africa's football to develop sustainably, coaching and consistent player development must flourish together. Worryingly, aside from a few notable exceptions, African players are not delivering on their initial potential and are, largely, failing to make significant impacts at Europe's top teams.
In Ghana, says Goal.com's Kent Mensah, players are too often sold on before they reach maturity. That leads to damage in the local league as the standard of play stagnates while the development of the transferred player is stunted as the move is not always in his best interest. The pattern is repeated across the continent. The fact that Nigeria boast a local coach, as well as six Nigerian Premier League-based players in their Afcon squad of 23, is a small step in the right direction.
Abundant challenges remain. Across the west African region, there seems to be a desire to follow that Stephen Keshi template and develop players in the local league in order to ensure internal competitiveness as well as the stable delivery of elite talent. More needs to be done, too, by often kleptocratic governing bodies, to ensure that coaching programmes are implemented and infrastructure developed as required.
Africa's finest footballing hours have come at the Olympic Games. The Nigeria team of 1996 and their Cameroonian counterparts in 2000 were outstanding generations. But Kanu and Eto'o practically started and finished their football education outside of Africa and it is imperative that the new generation is bred from within.