CELEBRATE AFRICA: Lessons for Southern Africa from AFCON 2013

The 2013 African Cup of Nations has come and gone. Claims and predictions made before the start of the tournament regarding the favourite teams to win the tournament have come to naught.
The predictions were indeed wide off the mark.
Reality is that the trophy has surely made its way to Nigeria. The “Super Eagles” are back. For a long time, they flattered to deceive. It seemed like the Super Eagles were suffering from a severe bout of bird flu.
As much as we congratulate our Western African brothers and sisters, we cannot help but feel disappointed, as Southern Africans, that our efforts towards retaining the trophy through Zambia and hosts, South Africa were indeed very feeble. Zambia’s Chipolopolo capitulated in the group stages while Bafana Bafana found Mali too tough to deal with.
Some critics have complained that there were too many West African nations in the tournament. However, this is not a valid complaint, whichever way you look at it. The countries that made it to the 2013 AFCON qualified on merit. Four great Southern Africa countries Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe all had a chance to add to the region’s representation in the tournament and they did not succeed. They could not qualify. Like the rest of the losers, they should go back to the proverbial “drawing board”, which was discussed in last’s week column.
One factor that was blatantly evident is that the Southern African approach to tournament football is not physically strong and robust. The losing finalists, Burkina Faso, had one skillful player, Jonathan Pitroipa. The rest were physically strong guys ‑ tough as teak, who could battle, out-run and break down any resistance to their onslaught. The fact that Nigeria squeezed a lucky 1-0 victory in the final is testimony to the effective approach of the Burkinabe team.
For me, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso were the welcome revelations of the tournament.
Southern African teams want to play their “shoe-shine piano” football with all the fancy footwork and skills, but sadly this approach does not win matches. It has been proven once again that modern football requires robust defending, highly mobile midfield and lightning counter-attacks characterised by quick, effective passing and movement off the ball.
Southern African nations may continue to grumble but what they really need to do is to change their style of play. They need to put themselves in a position where, physically they can force matters on the pitch. No amount of moaning, whining and appealing to the referees and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is going to help.
The 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds are ongoing and already a good number of Southern African countries are at a serious disadvantage. It will be a miracle indeed, if any team from this region can make it to Brazil 2014 as one of the five African representatives. However, it is never too late to learn.
If Cape Verde, a nation of just half a million inhabitants,  managed to stop four-time winners, the “Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon from coming to the 2013 AFCON, it means that the so-called minnows or “small teams” have no excuse for not causing major upsets either at the AFCON or FIFA World Cup.
There is no reason why Swaziland and Lesotho, two nations from Southern African that have never qualified for the AFCON tournament, should not work to improve their game and style of play to qualify as well. Botswana qualified for the first time, for the 2012 edition in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea and was given the proverbial “baptism of fire”.
They now know what it takes to qualify. You must fight and keep on fighting to the bitter end. No one will give Southern African nations an easy passage to the AFCON or FIFA World Cup.
Constant hiring and firing of coaches is also one problem that Southern African nations should address. A coach needs at least three to five years in order to make any impact in terms of performance improvement. In addition, Southern African nations need to invest in their own local coaches through training as well as short-term attachments and working visits to Western Europe, Argentina and Brazil where football is much more advanced.
Although, it is not the ideal situation, it was refreshing to learn that Luis Antunes, the Cape Verde coach, is a full-time air traffic controller in his country. He benefited from a working visit to Real Madrid in Spain before the AFCON. Obviously, he did learn a few things from the “Special One”, Jose Mourinho, judging by the performance of Cape Verde in the tournament.
The new African champions, Nigeria, also brought a much high number of locally based players compared to their recent engagements at the AFCON. These players proved beyond reasonable doubt that they are as good as their counterparts who ply their trades in much more lucrative leagues throughout the world.
This is another important lesson that Southern Africans need to draw from this tournament. There is need for serious investment in grassroots development and transformation of local leagues. This is something that the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) can help to address. COSAFA should play a much more visible and dynamic role in the development of the game in Southern Africa.
Even if Southern African countries do not qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which is most likely, there is need for them to put in place innovative and science-based Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) systems. This, in order to prepare for the 2015 and 2017 AFCONs as well as the 2018 FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia. This work needs to start now as there is no time to wallow in self-pity and shame, or worse still engage in CAF petty politics and power struggles. The future is bright for Southern African football but getting there means lots of hard work, blood, sweat and tears.

February 2013
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