When Cameroon reached the quarterfinals in 1990 -- and very nearly beat England -- there was a widespread assumption that African football had arrived, and that its sides would be regular challengers at every tournament thereafter. The metanarrative of progress endures, with each disappointing performance from an African side regarded as nothing more than a setback on the eventual road to an African victory. Since Cameroon's achievement, though, only Senegal has equaled its feat of reaching the last eight, in 2002. The truth is surely rather that African football at the national level has failed, and that, for all the proliferation of African players at the highest level in Europe, football is no closer to an African World Cup winner now than it was 20 years ago.
Vahid Halilhodzic, who was sacked as coach of Ivory Coast in February after its elimination in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations, highlighted three major reasons for the failure of African football to develop: corruption, disorganization and individualism.
"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.
"Basically, what we have is organizational chaos, but corruption also plays its part."
That is seen most obviously in agents offering bribes so players they represent are called up to the national team, increasing their market value. Otto Pfister, the veteran German coach who has a wealth of experience in Africa, remembers an agent sitting on the bench during Cameroon's first World Cup qualifier for South Africa. "That just shouldn't happen," he said. He resigned in May 2009. Pfister was also Togo's coach in the 2006 World Cup, a campaign derailed by a dispute over the nonpayment of player bonuses.
"One of biggest problems is the fact that most of the players are very narcissistic. Individuality comes first," Halilhodzic said.
"Socioeconomic status in Africa plays a big role; that is where that individualism comes from. Everybody wants to assert themselves and create a chance to play in Europe. The personal has precedence over team interest, so there is a lack of team spirit, and this makes it impossible to create winners."
Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac addressed just that issue last November when he fined three senior players -- Michael Essien, Sully Muntari and Asamoah Gyan -- $3,000 for skipping a friendly against Angola. When Muntari was slow to pay, he dropped him for the Cup of Nations in January, while the emergence of a highly talented crop of biddable young Ghanaian players means the older players in the squad know they have to knuckle down or they'll be replaced.
Usually, though, it is the coaches who are replaced, as Halilhodzic discovered. He had made clear he saw the Cup of Nations as a learning experience ahead of the World Cup, but when his Ivory Coast side, having taken an 89th-minute lead against Algeria in the quarterfinal, then conceded a soft equalizer and was unable to raise itself in extra time, he was sacked. After 18 months without defeat, he lost his job, as he put it, "for two minutes of madness."
All his preparatory work was cast aside, and Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed despite a total lack of experience in the African game.
"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.
Development of players is only marginally better. For all the romanticized and at times patronizing talk of "the natural African game" with its emphasis on flair and dribbling, the vast majority of Africans playing in Europe are strong, powerful strikers, midfield runners or center backs; players, in other words, whose game is based on physique rather than technique. The fault may be in European clubs who have a particular template in mind when signing African players, but Halilhodzic believes academies in Africa must take their share of the blame.
"The lack of creators is a huge problem," Halilhodzic said. "It was the same in Ivory Coast. I had great strikers, good defense, but I didn't have a man who could take the strings of the game in his hands. That means improvisation, which is never good. Why is there a lack of such players in Africa today? Well, everything starts in the football schools and academies. They obviously don't work in the right way, they don't create football thinkers. But you have to think about that economics: Everybody wants to sell themselves as soon as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to score goals."
The infrastructure of player and coaching development is poor, and the levels of corruption and disorganization mean that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Stars may emerge or coaches like Rajevac may be able to foster team spirit to elevate nations in the short term, but the long-term prognosis is poor. African football is not progressing, but more worrying is that it is not even progressing toward progress.