He was so good they named him twice. That was the myth that normally accompanied the story behind the name of Augustine ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha. The Nigerian playmaker was a footballer blessed with such elegant poise. His touch and control of the ball was so delightfully slick. His pass sliced defences with surgical precision and majestic incision. Sometimes, it seemed as if he had eyes at the back of his head, or that his line of sight could see round corners. Whenever Okocha had the ball at his feet, magic was expected and magic almost always materialised. More often than not, you had to look twice to decipher what he had just done.
Yet, since retiring from football in 2008, the world has not seen another African playmaker of his kind on the world stage.
Okocha was probably the last of a dying breed. In sub-saharan Africa, there is beautiful nostalgia in remembering the days when Okocha’s ability took him – and Nigeria – to lofty heights. None more so than in Ghana, where before Okocha’s time, there was Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew.
It was not difficult to reckon why Abedi Ayew had the nickname ‘Pele’. His technique and passing range was so great that he was named man of the match in the 1993 UEFA Champions League Final. Then playing for Olympique Marseilles, there was no denying that his through balls to Jean-Pierre Papin and his link up play with Chris Waddle were one of the reasons why the French club were the best team in Europe at the time.
For Ghana as well, Abedi Pele’s contribution ensured that they regularly made it into the latter stages of the African Cup of Nations. His style was of utmost sublime originality. And together with Okocha, they represent the one facet that is missing from African football at the moment.
The creative playmaker.
This has been evident. Ever since Okocha’s retirement, there has been a run of African Cup of Nations tournaments that lacked creativity. In some ways, teams are now more reliant on physicality and athleticism more than anything else — leading to drab games at Africa’s continental showpiece event.
Even Ivory Coast and its so called ‘golden generation’ lacks a player who can decide a game with finesse. Blessed with a fearsome attack and a solid defensive base, it lacks a player with imagination to unlock defences. The result has been to play Yaya Toure as the attacking midfielder. Yet for all the qualities that Yaya Toure possesses, he is more likely to decide a game by bursting through a packed defence rather than sliding in an atom splitting pass.
That is the reality mirrored across the rest of Africa. Defensive midfielders make for the greater share of African national team’s greatest individual players.
At the 2010 AFCON for example, Mali’s squad had three midfield players who were then playing for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. Yet, those players – Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita and Momo Sissokho – were all defensive midfielders. It meant that fielding all three would ensure a solid defensive contribution from midfield but would leave the attack slightly blunt.
That dilemma exists in most of the African nations and it is not difficult to recognise why such a problem exists.
The Papa-Bouba Diop template
Tom Vernon, a former scout for Manchester United in Africa, explained to Jonathan Wilson what the root cause was. He described it as a ‘Papa Bouba Diop template’ that European clubs use when scouting for African players. After the success of that type of player – tall, athletic, aggressive, defensive minded but with a willingness to drive forward – European clubs based their scouting on such a player. They thus took them in, coached them well and hence the huge number of defensive midfield specialists in Africa.
But why does Europe form the base of this problem? Because the best football is in Europe, and as such, there is where the money is. Whereas most African states do not have the infrastructure to develop players at the highest level on their own, Europe in turn becomes the promised land. Agents and players themselves look forward to this, and so players who dream of playing in Europe realised the trend that scouts were taking and moulded themselves into this sort of player.
This template also seems to have sub-consciously formed a stereotype within European football of what the African midfielder ought to be. Mikel John Obi provides a clear example. A highly imaginative player at a young age, he has seen himself turned into a highly effective defensive midfielder.
At the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Mikel played as Nigeria’s main attacking threat from midfield. He resembled a player like Juan Mata or Mesut Özil – patient with his passing before unleashing a threatening through ball. In the end, he would pick up the Silver Ball Award for being the first runner-up in the Best Player at the tournament as Nigeria finished second to an Argentina led by a strike force of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero.
That attacking instinct now seems to have departed him. There is always surprise whenever he scores for Chelsea — no matter the rarity of that happening. This is because on joining Chelsea in 2006, Jose Mourinho made him Claude Makelele’s understudy. His mentor seemed to have taught him one basic thing. Stick around the center circle and if you must venture out of it, do so only ten yards away on either side. It is a role he performed so brilliantly especially in Carlo Ancelotti’s Premier League winning team in the 2009-2010 season.
Of late, Mikel has enjoyed a freer role while playing for his national team. His goal against Uruguay at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 signalled this. But this is just a glimpse of what could have been.
The same scenario could also be said of Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah. At the 2010 AFCON, he wore the number 10 shirt in the absence of the injured Stephen Appiah. His performances intimated at a playmaker who could fill Abedi Pele’s shoes.
But club football would remove such intimation. When in 2012 Asamoah moved from Udinese to Juventus, he was converted into a left wing back by Antonio Conte. As shown by the AFCON tournament in 2013, it left Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah in a dilemma. Asamoah could now play as a left back which coincidentally is a problem area for Ghana. But what about his midfield role?
Creativity from Wide Areas
Attacking midfielders, or would be attacking midifelders in Africa threrefore find themselves re-assigned to the wing. One only has to look at the likes of Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew – Abedi Pele’s son – to note that. Whereas Dede was hyped from a young age (probably because his father’s reputation preceded him), he lost his way before re-inventing himself as a left winger for the triumphant Under-20 World Cup winning Ghana in 2009. Since then, he has made that position his own.
It represents just where most of Africa’s creativity is coming from. From wide areas, Jonathan Pitroipa of Burkina Faso, Ahmed Musa of Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire’s Gervinho usually represent the best outlet from which chances are created.
To find purely attacking midfielders, one must look to North Africa. Tunisia have Oussama Darragi, Morocco have Younes Belhanda and the ultimate fantasist is Mohamed Aboutrika of Egypt. Yet, the Egyptian magician has never displayed his qualities at higher levels other than with Al Ahly or the Egyptian national team that wins AFCON’s but fails to qualify for World Cups.
All of these North African wizards will subsequently be missing from football’s showpiece event because their nations failed to qualify for Brazil 2014.
Algeria — the only North African country to qualify for the World Cup — will probably have the only set of African footballers who can produce imagination from midfield. In Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia, Yaccine Brahimi of Granada and Bastia’s Ryad Boudebouz, Algeria have the players to rekindle that lost playmaker role. With this being said however, Algeria may represent the weakest representation of Africa at the World Cup.
It means that for the closest ideal to the playmaker’s role from an African country with a high competitive edge at the World Cup lies in Ghana.
The African Playmaker
Kevin Prince Boateng will in all likelihood play behind Ghana’s main striker, Asamoah Gyan at the World Cup. This is not a new position to Boateng. He currently occupies that position at Schalke and did the same for AC Milan. At Milan, he also wore the number 10 shirt — a jersey number revered in Milan because of its previous famed occupants.
But Boateng was never a Gianni Rivera or a Ruud Gullit. He did not possess the dribbling skills of a Dejan Savicevic, or the artistry of Manuel Rui Costa or the patience of Clarence Seedorf. Boateng was all about energy and directness.
Various reasons may have dictated his departure from Milan but once you look at his replacements, you get the understanding of the tactical reasons that may have been involved. Milan re-signed Kaka, promoted Valter Birsa from their academy and will have Keisuke Honda for the last half of the 2013-2014 season.
All of these three players are entirely different from Boateng and exemplify the creative genius that Milan wants to re-introduce at the club.
Boateng will however bring that energy to Ghana’s midfield in support of Gyan. In the process, it is he who fully tells the story of the African playmaker. In that role, Africa has more force than it does fantasy.
[images courtesy of zimbio]