Saturday, June 26, 2010

On African soccer and Ghana

Jonathan Wilson has some interesting ideas about why African soccer struggled in this World Cup in which they were expected (well, more hopes than expectation) to do well:
"African football suffers from chronic organizational problems," he said. "There, politicians are interfering in absolutely everything, especially football. The reasons are obvious: Football is very popular, particularly on the national level, and some marginal political characters are using football to collect political points.

"Expectations are utopian," Pfister said in a recent interview with DPA, the German Press Agency. "Nigeria's president, for example, said, 'We want to become world champions.' Football has so much power in Africa that even heads of states must fear for their jobs if their team fails. The African nations have world-class players everywhere, but the officials tear lumps out of each other. And the officials are not in their posts because of their knowledge but for political reasons."

That leads to a desperation for success and the short-termism, which has reached such absurd levels that the six African sides at the World Cup have had between them 18 coaching changes since the beginning of 2008 -- and these are, by definition, the most successful sides on the continent.

It is perhaps also significant that of those six, only Algeria has a domestic coach. Japan and South Korea, notably, after success with foreigners in the 2002 World Cup, have qualified for the second round this time with local coaches. The reasons are partially political -- in Nigeria, for instance, an Igbo coach would be accused of bias against Hausa or Yaruba players, whereas a European is assumed not to make such distinctions -- but also because of a lack of coaching infrastructure. Put simply, there is nobody coaching the coaches, and even if there were, it would be extremely hard for those coaches to secure the positions at European leagues that are probably necessary to raise their status sufficiently to handle the egos of players playing and earning in Europe.

Interesting that such poor governance can negatively affect the performance of the team. Well, interesting and counterintuitive if you accept the romantic view of soccer: that splendid poverty breeds great players who make up great teams. But thinking about it without such romanticism leads to believe…that it’s pretty reasonable.

At any rate, I don’t think it’s an accident (if this theory is correct) that Ghana simultaneously is regarded as one of the best African governments and one of its most successful soccer teams: it's qualified for the knockout stages twice in a row now, which is a pretty good feat.

A further note on the game today: it will be very tough, nearly a tossup to win. They’re a very good team with a tough defense; it’ll be a tough nut to crack. I hope everyone doesn’t let their expectations (well, more hopes than expectation) outrun reality.

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