Who are the Giants of African Football?

This article looks at why no African side can claim to be the continent’s giants and also examine some of the contenders for that illustrious title

By James Ezimoha

Did I hear you say Egypt? Cameroon? Ghana? South Africa? What about Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria or Cote d’Ivoire? Now, hold on. No need to roll your eyes, especially those from the West African nation called… wait for it… okay, Nigeria. It’s certainly not our ‘birthright’ to be named ‘Giants of African Football’…or is it?

Africans love titles! Addressing a traditional ruler, or a member of the council of elders, without the appropriate title is seen as disrespectful. Even the cook in the King’s palace has to be addressed by his full title–Royal Cook!

Non-Africans may not fully understand the enormity of this but the consequences of not assigning the proper title to a crowned personality, especially in the traditional setting, can be dangerous. Okay, relax, we are still talking about football here.

The title, ‘Giant of Africa’, in terms of football across the continent, has been tossed around so much that no particular country can currently stake a definite claim to it. Yes, that includes the reigning African champions, Nigeria!

One could argue that African teams, especially those who have been associated with this title before, lack the wits to sustain the kind of dominance that they have previously enjoyed. This reality makes it difficult to confer such a title on anyone at this point in time.

 Spain | Europe already has its Giants

Spain: The Undisputed Kings of Europe

The status of the current World Cup and European Cup holders, Spain, as the ‘Kings of Europe’ cannot be questioned. In the last five years, La Roja have conquered all before them, winning two consecutive European Championships (2008 & 2012) and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa (2010).

Not only have the current Spanish national team won consecutive major trophies, they have also stamped their own individual possession philosophy on the European and International scene, defining an era in the process. This ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy has been consistent over the last eight years (beginning before the 2006 World Cup), gradually evolving and constantly undergoing refinement under the different managers they’ve had.

Their style of football has become a benchmark for attractive, progressive football; the toast of the modern game (for everyone, perhaps, apart from Jose Mourinho!). The Spanish have successfully developed a sustainable blueprint for the younger generations to run with, and, to prove that the system works, the nation currently holds the record for the most consecutive competitive matches unbeaten - 29. La Roja currently sit, comfortably, as the number one team in the FIFA world rankings; a position they have occupied for sustained periods since July 2008.

The bad news for other countries in Europe (and other parts of the world) is that the framework of their philosophy, which has bolstered their dominance, is unadulterated; getting better with each passing day, like old wine.

And that’s how you earn the right to be called a ‘Giant’.


Iniesta | A Giant among Giants

The West African nations

The intense and historical rivalry in this region requires no introduction. The nations in this region (and I include Cameroon for the purpose of this feature) have won 12 AFCON titles and have reached 16 AFCON finals. Players from different countries in this region have won all CAF APOTY Awards from 1992-2013 (the only exception being 1998 when Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji pipped Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha to win it). Furthermore, the only African to be crowned FIFA Player of the year hails from Liberia–George Weah.

Only Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana, in the whole of Africa, have reached the quarter-final stage at the World Cup. Nigeria and Cameroon are the continent’s only Olympic Gold medalists; while Nigeria and Ghana share seven world titles at FIFA U17 and U20 level.

“Such dominance always comes down to genetics and environmental arguments,” sports scientist from Cape Town, Tim Noakes, told the BBC. “West Africans are bigger and stronger than the rest of the continent – with the world’s best sprinters originating from the area.”

Their physique explains the intimidating brand of football they display–the muscular efficiency favoured by Jose Mourinho above others. This football philosophy, popularly known as ‘gra-gra’ in Nigeria, has brought the West Africans some success but none of them has yet carved out a clear, distinct pattern with which to forge a framework that enables sustained success.

Nigerian legend, Jay-Jay Okocha, told Accra-based Citi fm: “Both Ghana and Nigeria call themselves giants of African football, but look how long it took Nigeria to win a Nations Cup trophy (after winning it in 1994). How can you be a giant of the sport when you are not consistent?”


Yaya Toure | The Best of Africa

The North, South & East

Despite their lack of physicality, the Northerners can boast ten Africa Cup of Nations titles. The Pharaohs of Egypt lead the pack with seven (three more than anyone else) and Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco with one each. They have also won the African Nations Championship (CHAN) title twice–Tunisia in 2011 and Libya, who beat Ghana via penalties to claim the title earlier this year.

They also make a case for themselves in the CAF Champions League.

The African continental competitions are glaringly dominated by the Northerners. Clubs from North Africa have won twenty-seven (out of forty-nine) CAF Champions League titles from 1965-2013. They compensate for a lack of physicality with a decent ball-sense and skills, and this has served them well.

Moroccan great, Mustapha Hadji, explains the lack of dominance from the Northern sides by citing a lack of mental strength and hunger. He is quotedd by the BBC: “Mentally, the West Africans are stronger than us and I’m still unsure why North Africans don’t have as much hunger or give up quicker than others. Our skill levels are the same but it's mentality that makes the difference.”


Hadji | Believes North Africans lack the mentality required to be the best

The story is quite different in the East and down South.

South Africa and Zambia are arguably the torchbearers for the South; they (and the entire Southern region) have only two Nations Cup titles (one apiece), and so do the Eastern region, Ethiopia in 1962 and Sudan in 1970.

As for potential, organisation, media coverage, adequate funding etc., the South African League has it all. It has produced outstanding talents like Siphiwe Tshabalala, Itumeleng Khune, and Bernard Parker, but one wonders why Bafana Bafana have not progressed in a major tournament since making their World Cup debut in France 1998.

The Submission

One could argue that other factors outside the football scene have curtailed the progress of some nations, however the progress and desire shown by Cape Verde means there is no more excuses for mediocrity. They only made their first-ever AFCON appearance in 2013, yet, in the latest February 2014 FIFA rankings, they toppled many, even the current African champions, Nigeria, rising from 182nd position, back in 2000, to 27th in the World.

The saying, “There are no longer minnows in African football” has become a poem, sung by all. The so-called giants recite it when they lose, unexpectedly, to a 'lesser' side and the 'lesser' teams embrace it after slaying a ‘giant’.

It is a challenge for the West African powerhouses, the North African ‘ballers’, and the crafty Southern Africans & East Africans to step up and dominate.

The grand title, ‘Giant of Africa’, is up for grabs; who wants it?

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