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
A key figure in the French club Marseille of the early '90s was the Ghanaian
Abedi Pele blames the pace of the modern game. "If you look at
"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
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
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
European clubs, Vernon says, have become fixated on a particular type of player -- what he calls "the
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
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