The Foreign Coach

Africa's men's national football teams have failed to improve under foreign coaches and there is nothing to suggest that this state of affairs will ever improve.

Ghanaian national team fans (Jake Young, via Flickr CC).

It seemed strange when in the run-up to Afcon 2013, Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi forcefully criticised African football associations for their preference for white coaches. That when Zambia, until this week the great success story of African football, had Hervé Renard to thank for masterminding their unlikely triumph last year in Libreville. Yet Keshi has a point.

The success of Zambia under Renard should not obscure the fact that African football administrators have always failed to appreciate and make use of its own resources and talent. This is true of football as it is of Africa’s national economies. (As it’s turned out, the split between local- and European-coached teams in the quarter finals is even, four of each, but the stand-out coach, Cape Verde’s press-conference-crooner Lucio Antunes, is decidedly homegrown).

Keshi told BBC Sport that white coaches are not doing anything that African coaches cannot do. “I am not a racist but that’s just the way it is.” Keshi added that African FAs favour European coaches over African: “You tell a white person they need a year to adapt, to know the country and the players–they are told ‘don’t worry, take your time.’ That is unprofessional and is one thing that is killing African football,” Keshi argued.

This is a perennial debate in Africa; it is always there when a football tournament is on in Africa. Prior to 2010 Fifa World Cup, former Malawi national football team coach Kinnah Phiri also told BBC World Service that “it’s not fair for us African coaches not to be given a chance to run our own national teams because in the first place most of us are well trained, I trained in Britain; so to me, I think it’s just because of our own mentality as Africans that we do not believe in our people.”

As it happens, Keshi is currently in-charge of Nigeria and Phiri has just lost his job, after a string of bad results at the end of a lengthy tenure, suggesting that these two have been given a fair chance by their respective countries. Yet they paint a bigger picture than this.

For instance, Malawi has had a fair share of expatriate coaches that have not brought any success (take your pick from the itinerant German Burkhard Ziese, the Dane Kim Splidsboel and Englishmen Alan Gillett, Michael Hennigan and Stephen Constantine) . Malawi has never qualified for the World Cup. It has twice qualified for Afcon, in 1984 and 2010. Local coaches had been in charge on both occasions: the late Henry Moyo in 1984 and Phiri in 2010.

Egypt is the most successful football team in the Afcon history; it has won the trophy seven times, mainly with local coaches–take the recent three successive victories (2006, 2008 and 2010) when Hassan Shehata was in charge. These days they’re coached by an American, Bob Bradley, and they no longer qualify for international tournaments, most recently beaten by the mighty Central African Republic. Ghana has won the tournament four times, with a local coach guiding the team on all the four occasions. (Recently, in a brilliant BBC interview, Black Stars legend Osei Kofi, lamented the “mismanagement” that had seen so many Black Stars sides coached by Europeans.) A foreign coach has never won the World Cup on any of the 18 occasions it has been held.

The pandemonium that gripped African football prior to the 2010 World Cup is very telling. Of the six African countries present at that tournament, only Algeria had a local coach, Rabah Saadane, Ivory Coast had the Swede Sven-Goran “not-here-for-the-money” Eriksson. Another Swede, Lars Lagerback was in charge of Nigeria. Cameroon had a Frenchman, Paul Le Guen, while South Africa had a former World Cup wining coach, Carlos Alberto Perreira from Brazil. Ghana had a Serb, Milovan Rajevac.

All these were experienced coaches, in various degrees. Yet their appointments (not so much for Ghana and South Africa) vindicate Keshi and Phiri. Eriksson was hired less than four months before the tournament. In fact, Eriksson after he had just been sacked by Mexico, as the Mexicans were in danger of failing to qualify for the same tournament.

Nigeria sacked a local coach, Shaibu Amodu, who qualified the team to the tournament, in favour of Lagerback. Lagerback had just failed to qualify his own country, Sweden to the same tournament. Cameroon went for Le Guen who had no experience of coaching in Africa (he’d just been hounded out of Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers) and he had an unrealistically short time to organise the team, which had also achieved qualification under a different coach. South Africa’s appointment had some logic, as Perreira is a World Cup winning coach (1994) and had the luck of not having to qualify the team, as South Africa were hosts. Ghana was the only team that maintained a coach from the qualifying rounds. Ghana was the only African team that made it past the group stages and it was by far the most convincing of the African teams at the tournament, only knocked out by the dastardly Luis Suarez on that unforgettable night at Soccer City.

African football seems to be following the path of its national economies: so much resources and human talent but always looking to the West for help. Yet Africa has a massive pool of footballers playing in the top leagues in Europe and elsewhere. (The Economist suggested that in Ivory Coast footballers may yet overtake cocoa as the country’s main export product.) This speaks volumes of the available talent, and Ivory Coast is just one of many similar examples. (The Ivorians made the extraordinary decision of firing the popular François Zahoui, and choosing former Parma midfielder Sabri Lamouchi, a man with no managerial experience whatsoever, to lead the team at this Afcon. Les Elephants are looking good, but then don’t forget they didn’t concede a single goal at the last tournament under Zahoui.)

European coaches are products of the same leagues that most Africans play for. As Phiri pointed out, Africans and Europeans attend the same coaching courses yet African FAs still see expatriate coaches above African coaches, and are happy to pay them a far higher salary. Familiarity breeds contempt; this is particularly true of Africa. It is the only continent that fails to recognise and exploit its vast footballing expertise for its own benefit.

Africa’s national football teams have failed to improve under foreign coaches and there is nothing to suggest that it will ever improve. Let’s face it, a coach that is useful in Europe would never leave for Africa (where is Sven now?). Why would they? It is the same way that aid dependency continues to fail Africa, only its own resources and talent can bring its national teams success on the biggest stages.

Further Reading

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