By Gilbert Phiri
European football, especially as played by the English and Germans, has for long been perceived to be premised on physicality, athleticism, competitiveness, intensity and aggression. In recruiting players from the Africa many European coaches and scouts tend to buy plays that conform to the perception. As such, most physically gifted players are more likely to end up playing professional football in European sides.
This eurocentric trend where big, physical and athletic African players are much sort after, has filtered into the African game with the majority of the expatriate coaches from Europe working in Africa seemingly perpetuating this trend. On the pitch, the emphasis is on rigid systems and formations, set up not to lose games. The end product is mechanical football lacking in fluence and attraction.
The missing cog in most African national teams, especially as seen at the 2012 African Cup of Nations, is the creativity, inventiveness and improvisation, qualities that typified great African players. The rigid systems imported into Africa de-emphasize and in a way stigmatize individuality. The African game has always had skilful players with excellent ball skills and creative movement. Jay Jay Okocha, Abedi Pele, Rodger Milla, Kalusha Bwalya, Tit Camara, Theophilus ‘Doctor’ Khumalo, Rabah Madjer. Mohammed Timoumi, Emmanuel Amunike, Peter Ndhlovu, Louis-Paul M’fede, Tico Tico, Ahmad Baja and Daniel Amokachi, to name but a few, all evoke memories of wonderful players who were darlings of African crowds. Very few of the current crop of African players are of a comparable quality.
The top African player was a dribbling wizard, full of guile and an improviser, able to express himself on the ball. Today players are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. They can leave their brains at home and still function admirably. The flair is not there any more. Africa is trying too hard to play a staid brand of European football.
Ironically, the world’s greatest players at the moment – Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, like Ronaldinho and Zidane before them – are lauded more for individual brilliance. The spectators pay handsomely to watch these kinds of phenomenal talents. The individual brilliance that is allowed to blossom is invaluable to any team.
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations showed that almost all the teams lacked that special player able to conjure up some moment of magic to decide a game or influence it in a major way. The eventual winners – the chipolopolo of Zambia – shunted their most creative player, Rainford Kalaba, to a wing role where defensive duties weighed him down to a point where he would fade badly in the second half leaving him unable to influence the game offensively.
The favourites, Ivory Coast and Ghana were stiffly set up in 4-2-3-1 formations with two defensive midfielders whose roles the Zambians effectively nullified rendering them unable to suppport their creative players – Yaya Toure and Kwadwo Asamoah, respectivey. In the end, Zambia’s strategy of soaking up pressure and playing on the break eventually won the tournament albeit in a fashion not pleasing on the eye but nevertheless a deserved triumph.
The European influence has not all been negative on Africa. Tactical discipline has now become a widespread feature. Defences are tighter and the margin of scores in games between teams perceived to be strong against ‘minnows’ is now low unlike in the past. With emphasis being laid on physical fitness, almost all national teams have physical trainers. This has certainly improved the endurance levels of the players.
Perhaps a blend or a hybrid of the European disciplined style of play and African flair and improvisation is what could work best in Africa. Flair must not be de-emphasized as it a heritage that has defined football in Africa and it is what has partly sustained interest in the game. The Brazilians maintain tactical discipline without sacrificing the flair and improvisation; so does Argentina. The crowds pour in to watch the dribbling, intricate movement and feints of Neymar, Messi,Tevez and so on. Africa must resist any attempts to kill its soul.