Mar 02 2010
An article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian today asks an interesting question for those of us who grew up in an era in which West African football was the realm of skilled artists such as Abedi Pele, George Weah, Roger Milla, and exciting teams like the “original” Nigerian Super Eagles who played swashbuckling, imaginative football. In a piece that starts out by discussing Egypt’s tactical formation (very interesting as well), he goes on to ask:
So where have Africa’s creators gone?
That then raises the issue of where the creators have gone; why west Africa has, in a generation, not produced a player like Jay-Jay Okocha or Abedi Pele. Okocha blames the attempt to impose discipline and adopt a “European model”, but that has not prevented European nations from producing gifted creators. Manchester United’s scout in Africa, Tom Vernon, who runs an academy in the hills above Accra, suggests that the fault lies partly with European clubs, who tend to have what he terms “the Papa Bouba Diop template” in mind. The African players who have succeeded in Europe in the past have usually been big and robust, and so clubs look only for something similar. Players called up by European clubs at a young age develop faster and have a higher profile, and so it is they who make it into the national team.
Indeed, a superficial survey of some of the West African players in leagues like the Premier or the Primera División of Spain will confirm this tendency; robust, very physical, big players often placed into combative roles. Think Essien and Mikel at Chelsea, Toure Yaya and Keita at Barcelona, Abou Diaby and Song at Arsenal, M. Diarra at Real Madrid, and so on. Even African players, like Drogba at Chelsea, who play in other positions seem destined to rely on their athleticism and power; in very few instances do you see a “creator” or creative midfielder from Africa.
Of course, fans of football are no strangers to stereotyping, often of racial nature, when it comes to players at the international and club level. In England, there are stereotypes of what nationalities will succeed and which ones won’t. In England and Spain, there is an obsession with West African hard-working midfielders, yet there are few Italians (though you will find West Africans in Italy). You see a crop of Brazilians in Spain yet they are seen as difficult to adapt to England. And so on and so on.
The idea, though, becomes interesting when one starts to wonder to what extent such ideas influence the way a team thinks of itself. There is no doubt that racism towards West Africa (and elsewhere) exists, that European clubs are looking for their “Makelele” or other player willing to do the unglamorous, slavish dirty work so that their starlets may thrive. But how does this affect the way a national team, for example, envisions its own football?
Manchester United’s scout, quoted in the article, readily admits that players in these African national teams are often in a hierarchy related to who plays abroad and where. When you have such an economic force as European club football drawing up players from Africa to play in roles determined by the European footballing imagination, what impact is that going to have on the national teams?
The scout, Tom Vernon, goes on to speculate that the way kids play on the street in Ghana might have something to do with it, as in his opinion playing on tiny pitches forces them to “play through the middle” and sacrifice creative wing play. Of course, anyone familiar with Brazilian football, to cite just one example, can write that off as nonsense. In Brazil, one can witness football being played just about anywhere there is flat ground, regardless of space. The greatest players from there have hailed from inner-city squatter ghettos where space is at a premium; it is precisely that lack of space that is a driving impetus for imagination and creativity.
In the case of Brazil, these players seem to transform when they put on their yellow jersey to be a part of the seleção; while the commentators during this upcoming World Cup might talk about the Brazilian footballing blood in their veins, I would say to think about the culture built into the minds of these players. Players of diverse racial backgrounds who are playing under the idea of being Brazilian, in a culture that deifies anything related to the supposed jogo bonito, the Brazilian “beautiful game.”
Naturally, anyone who has witnessed football under Dunga, especially in ’94, knows that the Brazilian national game can be anything but beautiful, and that their best results are the fruit of grim determination, discipline, physicality, and efficiency even more than artistry. The Brazilian team of today emphasizes this even more clearly, as Dunga coaches them into South Africa.
For the African teams in South Africa in 99 days, success will be a measure of how well they can overcome the typecast images of themselves that dominate their football history. It will be a test of how this idea of hard-working journeymen playing on chaotic, disorganized African teams can be overturned and how new ideas can be formed. To the extent that these are external, cultural ideas, accumulated and enforced through the brutal economics of football, one can say that it will take something truly special to pull it off.
And yet, from time to time we see teams overcome the burden of history to change the course of their destiny. Most recently Spain, in 2008, overcame the “perennial overachievers” tag to capture their first senior international triumph in 44 years. Last summer, the USA very nearly pulled off a worldwide shockwave by going up 2-0 against feared and revered Brazil in the Confederations’ Cup final, before falling victim to their own tactical naïveté (though the second American goal will live long in my memory as perhaps the finest counterattacking goal I’ve ever seen).
For many (myself included), the first African World Cup will be a fascinating stage on which some of the dominant myths of international football could well be overturned. I, for one, wonder if it will be a time for players like Essien and Toure Yaya to break their shackles as huffing-and-puffing defensive midfielders and play to their true potential as creative, imaginative geniuses that I know they can be.
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