Some years ago, particularly when African teams were taking part in the World Cup, many comments, some of them not too complimentary, were passed about the teams.
One such comment which rung true at the time was that African teams are tactically indisciplined, didn’t know how to defend and are not mentally conditioned enough to go far in the tournament.
Examples like Cameroon’s capitulation after leading England 2-1 in the 1990 World Cup quarterfinal and more recently, Ghana’s near miss at the 2010 World Cup, where the Black Stars were only a kick away from the semifinals spring to mind.
However, it appears that over the years, tactical discipline, organisation and mental conditioning has improved. For starters, most African players are not only playing for top teams in World football, but actually inspiring such clubs to major titles. Last year for instance, Didier Drogba inspired Chelsea to an unlikely UEFA Champions League triumph, whilst Yaya Toure inspired Manchester City to its first Premier League title in 45 years. Other African players are making waves and it is no surprise that such players are commanding huge transfer fees and wages.
The experience of playing for such top clubs have made the players more tactically aware and disciplined and it is reflecting on the performance of African teams at the ongoing Cup of Nations in South Africa. But this is only one side of the coin.
On the other side is the fact that national team coaches have either through years of experience or various coaching courses are also approaching their jobs in a tactical manner, resulting in a much more measured approach to matches. Fewer teams are using the gung ho approach to matches and it is a testament to the work of the coaches in charge.
In South Africa, seven nations have indigenous coaches and nine have expatriate coaches. At the semifinal stage, there are two indigenous coaches and two expatriates, with the real possibility of having two indigenous coaches facing off in the final for the first time since perhaps the 1982 African Nations Cup final. The interesting thing is that because coaches have improved over the years in terms of expertise, the distinction between expatriates and indigenous coaches is now a very thin line. More importantly, all the coaches at AFCON 2013 have ensured that their teams are difficult to beat and as a result, after a rather slow start, games may have been tight but very well competed for.
Even in the Burkina Faso v Ethiopia game, the 4-0 score line will be viewed on the surface as a hammering, but the Ethiopians showed their competitive edge even in that match. Again, the fact that every team in the competition finished the competition with at least one point shows that gradually African football is developing.
On the surface, many might question why not many goals have been scored in South Africa. Indeed questions have been raised regarding the quality of strikers on the continent. The answer is that whilst it is legitimate to question the form of some of the strikers on show, most of the teams are better organized and now most nations defend and attack as a unit. As a result, it becomes difficult to break down teams in a bid to score.
Paradoxically, on an individual level, defending has not really been at its best at AFCON 2013 and so it is a credit to most of the coaches that most teams are well organized in a bid to build a wall of relative impenetrability.
Again, it is heartwarming to see coaches drop big name players from the starting line up in a bid to improve the team’s fortunes. For example, after Nigeria dropped two points against Burkina Faso in the last minute due to inept defending, team captain Joseph Yobo was dropped from the starting line up by Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles head coach was vindicated by an impressive showing by central defenders Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo against Cote d’Ivoire in the quarterfinal. Indeed, towards the latter stages, Keshi sent Yobo on to close out the game after Sunday Mba’s wonder goal won the game for Nigeria.
If Burkina Faso has reached the semifinal, it is largely due to head coach Paul Put’s decision to relegate team captain Moumouni Dagano to the bench after the first group game. The Stallions looked sharper and more fluid against Ethiopia without Dagano and that is why Alain Traore’s injury could cost them eventually in the long run.
Cote d’Ivoire head coach Sabri Lamouchi dropped team captain Didier Drogba from the starting lineup against Tunisia and it was a brave move that paid dividends. The Elephants were rampant against the Carthage Eagles and Drogba proved far more effective off the bench in the 3-0 win. Even though the ex-Chelsea striker scored in the next game against Algeria, perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have started from the bench in the game against Nigeria, where he was little more than a passenger.
South Africa head coach Gordon Igesund made five changes to his starting lineup after a dour 0-0 draw with Cape Verde and that carried Bafana Bafana through to the quarterfinals before elimination on penalties by Mali. That decision included leaving out 2010 World Cup hero Siphiwe Tshabalala from the starting lineup after the Cape Verde match.
What about Black Stars head coach Kwasi Appiah? After Ghana was defensively all over the place against DR Congo, he brought in Rabiu Mohammed to play in front of the back four. The Evian midfielder has seized his chance with both hands and as a result, even though Anthony Annan is fit again, he cannot get into the Black Stars starting lineup. This is in addition to changes at the back which has seen Ghana keep three clean sheets since then going into the semifinals.
The point I am making here is that coaches are not afraid to make huge calls in a bid to improve the fortunes of their respective teams and now, past reputations count for nothing. The new found steely determination of head coaches in their attempts to reach the top encapsulates the wholesome improvement in coaching of national teams across the continent and it bodes well for the future in the African game.
There is definitely room for improvement, but generally performances at the 2013 African Nations Cup show that progress is being made in the right direction.
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