Sunday May 30th, 2010

Two decades ago, the general characterization of African football was that it was too undisciplined. Africa could produce great, powerful forwards and skillful midfielders, but it was let down by defensive inadequacies. The stereotype has proved hard to shift, but if it was ever true, African football left it far behind a long time ago.

The powerful forwards still exist, and they have been joined by great driving holding midfielders and defenders. In North Africa, there are skillful creators -- Egypt has Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat; Algeria has Karim Ziani; Morocco's Adel Taraabt shows great promise -- but in West Africa there is nothing. Even Ivory Coast, with its so-called "golden generation" of players, has lacked real flair.

A key figure in the French club Marseille of the early '90s was the Ghanaian Abedi Pele, a creator who won the man of the match award in the 1993 Champions League final. At the Cup of Nations in 1996, the Ghana side featured him and Ni'i Lamptey, a young and clever deep-lying forward whom Brazil's Pele hailed as the closest thing he had seen to himself. Lamptey's career was ruined by injury and personal tragedy, Abedi Pele retired aged 36 in 2000, and the wait goes on for a player of their type to emerge again.

Abedi Pele blames the pace of the modern game. "If you look at Kaka, he is technically very good, maybe the same talent as [Nigeria's Jay-Jay] Okocha," he said. "But if you look at Okocha, he didn't counterattack. He didn't run very fast. Kaka is somebody who takes the ball on the run. It's a different style of football.

"I would say the more efficient way today is like the Brazilians are playing. They slow the game from the defense, and when they get to the midfield they start passing it very fast. And when the ball gets to Kaka or Robinho, the speed comes from there. Today is a different kind of football."

Which is true, but that doesn't explain why terrific creative players continue to be produced in South America and Europe while the African flow has dried up.

The Nigeria side that won gold at the 1996 Olympics and impressed at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups was a gloriously attacking, inventive team that, with Kanu and Okocha, featured not one but two players who in another age might have been out-and-out playmakers. Okocha retired two years ago at 35, while Kanu struggles on as a 33-year-old who looks a lot older (whatever the truth of the speculation over his "real" age, the fact is that over the past year he has played a full game just three times, two of them in the final month of the season when Portsmouth's financial situation meant it couldn't even fill its bench). There is nobody beyond Kanu, and such is the dearth of creativity in Nigerian football that there was even semi-serious talk of Okocha's coming out of retirement for one last shot at the World Cup this summer.

Okocha suggests the issue is one of evolution, that African football, by trying to introduce the rigor of the European game, has come to overlook some of the things that elevated it in the first place.

"I see that African football is heading away from flair and more toward the team," he said. "Football has changed over the years and there aren't really any playmakers anymore. It's more about tactical work. I see African countries playing more like European ones. That's the only way to become competitive. It's a pity it's at the expense of flair, because fans want to enjoy their money and see good football. If you could combine the flair with goals it would be great."

Again, the obvious rejoinder is that other areas of the world seem to manage the balance.

Perhaps the issue is simply evolutionary, but Tom Vernon, Manchester United's scout in Africa, who runs an academy in the hills above the Ghanaian capital Accra, suggests the problem is partly economic. Given the lack of money available in domestic West African football, a natural stage in any player's career is to move -- as soon as possible -- to a European club. That dynamic of player development is different in Africa than elsewhere. Although most top South American players end up in Europe at some stage, it is possible to have a perfectly good career without leaving, and the players who do move tend to do so later, when they are fully formed, than West African players.

European clubs, Vernon says, have become fixated on a particular type of player -- what he calls "the Papa Bouba Diop template." They have seen the success of the likes of Diop, Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra and instinctively look for similarly forceful holding players. That sort of talent moves to Europe early and gets the best coaching, making him most likely to develop into a top player.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of width in the West African game -- has there ever been a great West African winger? -- something Vernon attributes to the conditions in which most children there learn the game.

"They have a pitch maybe 20 or 30 yards long, and set up two stones a couple of feet apart at either end, often with gutters or ditches marking the boundaries at the sides," he said. "So it's a tiny area. The game becomes all about receiving the ball, turning and driving through the middle."

And so the Papa Bouba Diop template is perpetuated, and Nigeria ends up fielding a central midfield of Yusuf Ayila, Dickson Etuhu and Mikel John Obi, not because it particularly wants to play defensively, but because it has nobody else.

What is needed to break the pattern is an outstanding creative player who will persuade European clubs that it is worth investing beyond the preconception. It is a terrible burden to place on a 21-year-old, but there are signs that Udinese forward Kwadwo Asamoah, who impressed for Ghana as it won the U-20 World Cup last year and then again in the Cup of Nations in January, could be Abedi Pele's heir. Ghana and West Africa need him to be; they need at least part of the old stereotype to become true again.

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