In Africa, football and sports in general has continued to lag behind, along with other indices of development and quality of life.
With the World Cup having reached its climax, two of the current best footballing nations will go head-to-head in what may be the most sizzling final at the Mundial yet.
The two countries vying for the golden FIFA World Cup Trophy are from Europe and South America, ably represented by Germany and Argentina respectively. In essence, it has been nothing more than a Europe vs. South America tournament all along, with the European conquistadors having the slight edge over their former South American colonies.
All the six South American countries that came to the World Cup, except Ecuador, made it to the Round of 16. But the bulk of the teams that made it through to the knockout phase were from Europe, with the “home” continent of football boasting of six representatives. A certain country trying so hard to embrace what they call “soccer” completed the picture along with two fellow North Americans and two African underdogs, Nigeria and Algeria. No country from Asia progressed. In the end, four of the five outliers were bundled home in the Round of 16, Costa Rica being the only survivors.
It is a shame that the so-called “World” Cup is turning into some kind of an invitational, similar to American football’s IFAF World Championship which is just the United States of America vs. Other Countries, or golf’s Ryder Cup that is only played out between the United States once again and Europe. Apart from the Olympic Games and the World Cup, countries of the world never really have the opportunity to compete against themselves in sports. The Commonwealth Games comes close, but not quite, being an international tournament that is exclusive to members of the former British Empire.
Sadly, soon, the World Cup as we know it may become a Europe vs. South America affair. This growing bias is also reflected in the monthly FIFA World Rankings which determines how teams are ceded for the World Cup. In it, 18 of the top 20 countries are either from Europe or South America. But this misnomer is no fault of FIFA’s, neither is it that of the South Americans nor the Europeans. They have worked hard for it and they deserve every accolade, recognition and special treatment meted out to them as a result. Africans, Asians and the North Americans are, in all fairness, just playing catch-up. The truth remains that these two continents are far, far ahead of the chasing pack in terms of experience, sophistication and dedication to the beautiful game. But it may not be for long.
Asia, the world’s most populous continent with, potentially, the largest pool of talent has started amending its ways. Asian leagues are now a major attraction for top retiring football stars who have been plying their trades in top European leagues. The major source of attraction there is the money. Oil rich Middle Eastern countries like Qatar (which will host the 2022 World Cup), the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have pumped in huge amount of money, geared towards the development of the game at all levels in recent years. Recently, Australia and China have become choice destinations too.
In North America, especially in the United States, investment in football has witnessed a sevenfold increase.since the United States hosted the 1994 edition of the FIFA World Cup. As evident in the just-about-to-be-concluded Brazil World Cup, Americans are now showing a great deal of interest in the round leather game, though some of them are still skeptical, arguing that it is not as violent and high-scoring as their own version of "football." Their lot was also buoyed when they managed to lure Britain's biggest celebrity and one of the best soccer stars at the time across the pool. The signing of David Beckham by the Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy was a major coup that announced to the world America's readiness to take the game by storm. Consequent of this daring move, a host of football's biggest names have followed suit by moving stateside towards the end of their careers.
In Africa, it is a different story. Football and sports in general has continued to lag behind, along with other indices of development and quality of life. The causes of this misnomer are not too farfetched and they are what we already know, but have failed to address.
Corruption: The Ghanaian national team endured a disappointing campaign on the pitch and an embarrassing one off it. According to credible sources, the monies that were duly disbursed for the execution of a successful campaign was channeled into private pockets by corrupt sports administrators. Things got so bad that fights broke out in their training camps, leading to the expulsion of two of their key players, Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, in the middle of the World Cup. They were allegedly protesting against the shoddy way in which the Ghanaian FA handled their preparation for the tournament. According to them, their World Cup arrangements had to be so mediocre and low-keyed as a result of the paucity of funds due to it not been used for what it was meant for. In the end, the physical and psychological impact of the horrendous experience led to a subdued performance on the pitch.
Theirs is not different from stories emanating from the experiences of other African countries in the World Cup and in other international events. Many in the continent see this as a jamboree and an avenue for channeling state funds into their private bank accounts, at the expense of their teams. While they are busy doing this, others are busy investing wisely and putting the resources into proper use.
Age fraud and abandonment of the grassroots: The agelong issue of the use of overaged players in age-grade competitions does not look like it’s ending any time soon. There is an "openly-covert" conspiracy by African teams, especially, to field overaged players in under-17, under-20 and youth tournaments. It is one trick that FIFA and other sporting bodies have not been able to decipher. The introduction of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan in age-grade championships has failed to put a stop to this. Teams have regularly found ways to circumvent it and cheat their way in. This may result in some short term gratifications like winning the tournament, but it is very costly in the long run. When it comes to the big ones, they will be lost in the crowd, being unable to rely on those "youngsters" whose half-lives are usually very short.
I wonder how many Nigerians that must have wondered what became of many of the players from our triumphant youth championship sides. The 2005 under-20 World Cup, 2007 under-17 World Cup, 2009 under-17 World Cup and 2013 under-17 World Cup sides easily come to mind.
The need for investment in football at the earliest level cannot be overemphasized. Talent is best tapped and developed when it is in its raw, unrefined form. The likes of Lionel Messi, Mario Balotelli, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Ronaldinho were all discovered when they were little kids of age two or thereabouts. Africans should not always be eager to look for the easy way out, for ready made talents, the proverbial apian way.
The total disrepair of infrastructure: The money invested in football becomes a nullity when such generosity is not extended to critical indices of development. Football and sports in general cannot grow when and where the infrastructure is in such a dire state. Without putting our roads, electricity supply, water supply, hospitals and schools in good shape, we will continue to lose our talents to European countries and no sane top foreign footballer will be willing to come and play over here. The likes of Mercel Desailly, Claude Makelele, Eusebio, Patrick Vieira, Patrice Evra and Luis Nani were all born on African soil, while Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema, Vincent Kompany and Henrik Larsson all have direct African roots. Economic stagnation and uncertainty forced them or their parents to go to pastures new in Europe as immigrants, decisions that made them blossom into some of the best footballers of their generations. Development in football must go hand in hand with development in other sectors of the society if real progress is to be made.
I can imagine Cristiano Ronaldo coming to Enugu Rangers or Bayelsa United in 2023 to earn his retirement benefits. If he gets injured (say break his vertebra), are we going to fly him to Germany or Saudi Arabia for his medical treatment? Will he ride his posh Ferrari and Bugatti in our congested, pothole-riddled highways? Or will he send his kids to our dysfunctional and dilapidated community secondary schools?
Let us reflect on this as we also give kudos to African governments and various stakeholders involved in football and sports administration for their efforts so far. But we must not forget or fail to remind them of how far others that started with us have gone.
Chinedu George Nnawetanma can be reached through email at [email protected], and at @CNNgeorge on Twitter.