Nothing sums up the perception of progress in African football more than the opening scene of The Newsroom, when Will McAvoy is forced to respond to the question “What makes America the greatest country in the World”. In that captivating opening episode, McAvoy turns, looks around, tries to evade the question, sees the answer in the crowd, ignores it as a hallucination, turns again, fails to evade the question, sees the answer again in the crowd, ignores it but ultimately answers, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, … but it can be”
Certainly, the speech he then goes on to give in between the words ‘world,’ and ‘but it can be’ sets the tone for the illusionary belief that exists in the question he had just been asked. In the same light, a Jonathan Wilson article in The Guardian almost a year ago titled “The Question; Is African Football Progressing?” borders on the same levels of intellectual frustration in belief of the constant myth of African football’s ever progressing nature.
As this writer read Jonathan Wilson’s piece again, exactly a year to the day since its publication on The Guardian website, and in the same circumstances; prior to the commencement of the African Cup of Nations, this writer could not help but ask the same question be it for reflective purposes.
Is African football progressing?
Before reading that article, this writer must admit that the thought that African football was progressing occupied his mind. Just look at the impact and influence of African players in the big European clubs. Samuel Eto’o had influenced at FC Barcelona, Didier Drogba at Chelsea, and now, Yaya Toure is doing the same at Manchester City. These examples are but just drops in the ocean of the huge amount of African footballers delivering in Europe – okay, maybe not an ocean, but a lake, or a very huge river.
There is also the rise of so called minnows to the realms of African kingship. The AFCON is no longer a preserve of either Nigeria or Cameroon. Tunisia (2004) and Egypt (2006, 2008, 2010), became nations worthy of being African Cup of Nations Champions. Even qualification for the World Cup has changed. Used to the same faces, here were Togo and Angola, Ghana and Ivory Coast (2006) and Algeria (2010) making their World Cup debut. This was followed by the likes of Niger, Botswana and even Cape Verde making it into the Nations Cup.
Elsewhere, Nigeria (1996) and Cameroon (2000) were winning the Gold medal at the Olympic games. Nigeria would reach the final of the 2005 FIFA Under 20 World Cup, losing to an Argentina that had a forward partnership of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. The same combination would deny Nigeria again, and at the same stage, this time at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. However, redemption would come in the form of Ghana who, in 2009, would go on to lift the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in Egypt, defeating mighty Brazil on post match penalties in the final.
But it is in the World Cup, where Wilson draws most of his comparisons. As he paints the picture, there was clear progress between 1978 and 1990; since then stagnation.
Stagnation because since then, African teams have failed to get past the quarter finals, or put in this way; African teams have failed to reach the semis. Failed to reach the semis is exactly what happened when Luis Suarez handled the ball on the goal line that night in Johannesburg, gifting the chance to Asamoah Gyan to raise the bar for African football. Gyan, instead, hit it.
And from 1990, despite Africa always having a representative in the second round, it speaks volumes that that number does not rise to more than one. That despite being assured of 5 spots at the World Cup; six in South Africa, one is still the number that always seems to progress to the next round.
Contrast that with South America. Only guaranteed four spots (the fifth place has to play a play off with a team from North America), it provided four quarter finalists at the World Cup in South Africa. The one that did not make it to the quarters, Chile, had been eliminated by Brazil, a fellow South American nation.
But to compare Africa with South America is somewhat unfair, as South America has a clearly defined football identity and history. However, recent events have shown that progress in South America is a reality, and not merely illusionary. Uruguay and Paraguay have challenged the established Brazil and Argentina. After winning the Copa America in 2011, Uruguay managed to surge as high as 2nd best in the FIFA World rankings in 2012. Meanwhile, Colombia and Venezuela seem to be mounting serious challenges to the established order in the World Cup Qualifiers for Brazil 2014.
Even North America is catching up. Mexico won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, and there were bright performances from Honduras. Asia also seemed to have surpassed African football with their impressive performances at the 2012 Olympic Games.
All this is progress and unfortunately in Africa, that is not the case. Instead, it has been caught up in its own tangled web of corruption and mismanagement.
However, there is hope. As Zambia come into the African Cup of Nations of 2013 as defending champions, one cannot help but acknowledge that therein lays a model for progress. After reacting to elimination from the Nations Cup in 2006, Zambia embarked on a journey that would, through proper management, sustained youth development; working structures and continuity in team selection deliver a continental crown by 2012. Certainly, this should be the example for all of Africa to emulate.
It is structure, proper management and youth development that keeps Ghana and Ivory Coast as the continents top brass. It is lack of the same that has led to the decline of Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria. Lack of continuing with the same has led to Algeria, Senegal, Togo and Angola not staying at the top. Lack of implementing the same has led to certain countries not even staring down the journey of progress and from a position of front row seat observer, this writer can attest that Kenya is one such country.
It is that decline that has allowed for one hit wonders – and Africa is full of them. Many countries have followed the route of Senegal in 2002; threatening to dominate but ultimately dwindling into obscurity.
Nothing screams more on the illusion of progress than one hit wonders. For one hit wonders are merely a reflection of the non-sustainability.
The stage however is there for Africa to correct its mistakes. To learn and to patiently implement, then watch as progress takes its natural course. For a continent that has so far done many a thing right in its development of football, it must acknowledge that many a thing wrong are holding it back. Progress ultimately is not a state of being but a continual process and only when that process begins can we truly say that African football is progressing.
African football, for the time being is not progressing, but with the huge amount of potential and talent in it, it most definitely can.