CONFEDERATIONS CUP 2013: Lessons for Africa

The 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup of Nations has come and gone.

The claims and predictions made before the start of the tournament regarding the favourite teams to win the tournament have been clearly declared null and void. They were indeed wide off the mark.
What is now a reality is that the cup has surely made its way to the trophy cabinet of the “Seleccao”, the Brazilian national team at the Confederation of Brazilian Football (CBF) offices. Forget the Spanish “tikki takka”. It is time for “jogo bonito” again, “the beautiful game”, typified and played by Brazilians with the utmost skill, flair and talent.
Africa’s representatives, the Super Eagles, predictably started preparations for the tournament with the usual fights over allowances between the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) and the national team players. Just like in the past, the Super Eagles, flattered to deceive.
There was nothing “super” about the Eagles’ performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup.  The so-called Super Eagles are now suffering from a severe bout of avian or bird flu.
As much as congratulations are in order for the Brazilians for, once again, re-affirming their commitment to the “beautiful game” in terms of performance, we cannot help but feel disappointed as Africans  that our efforts towards qualifying for the finals of major events  are always  very feeble.
Nigeria could not cope with the challenge posed by Spain and Uruguay, the eventual finalists and fourth position holders respectively, at the tournament. Like the rest of the losers, Nigeria and Africa by extension, should go back to the proverbial “drawing board”.
One factor that was blatantly evident is that the Nigerian or African approach to tournament football is not physically strong and robust.
 The Nigeria’s defending was tactically naïve and atrocious in both the Uruguay and Spain games.
The Super Eagles were just lucky not be hammered by a rugby score-line in games against these two countries.  
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.
Africans need to change their style of play.
They need to put themselves in a position where, physically, they can force matters on the pitch.
The 2014 World Cup is just a year away and African teams are already at a serious disadvantage before the tournament starts.
 It will be a miracle indeed if any five African representatives can progress out of the group stages at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
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.
Since 1994, Africans have always had five countries representing the continent unlike in previous years when there were only two teams from Africa. However, since then, African teams have always been receiving the proverbial “baptism of fire” at the FIFA World Cup but they do not show that, they have indeed, learnt some valuable lessons from previous performances.
It is always business as usual for African teams. Same old style.
It seems like African teams, even if they have some hugely talented European-based professionals within their ranks, do not have what it takes to play at such high-level tournaments.
They just do not know how to fight and keep on fighting to the bitter end.
Personally, the Nigerian performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup was indeed one of the most lethargic displays that I have seen in a long time. Without taking anything away from the Nigerian coach, Stephen Keshi is a brilliant coach but he was severely let down by the NFA and his own players.
Maybe, if he was still in his heyday, the former Nigerian captain and his age mates might have defended better against Uruguay and Spain.
African football authorities need to avoid constant hiring and firing of coaches at both junior and senior national teams.  
A coach needs at least three to five years in order to make any significant impact in terms of performance improvement. In addition, Africa needs 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 the Luis Antunes, the Cape Verde coach at the 2013 AFCON, is a full-time air traffic controller in his country. Antunes 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 performances of Cape Verde in the tournament. Given the same support and encouragement, other African coaches can also perform miracles. They do not need detractors, especially from within their own football authorities.
The recently crowned FIFA Confederations Cup champions, Brazil, also brought a much high number of locally based players compared to their recent engagements at such tournaments.
 These players proved beyond reasonable doubt that they are as good as their counterparts who ply their trade in much more lucrative leagues throughout the world.  
This is another important lesson that Africans need to draw from this tournament. There is need for serious investment in grassroots development and transformation of local leagues as well as the continental competitions.
Even if African teams do not qualify for the knock-out phase of 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 systems in order to prepare for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to be held in Russia and Qatar, respectively.
 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.
Judging by the talented Africans plying their trade in Europe, the future is bright for African football but winning the FIFA World Cup means lots of hard work, blood, guts, sweat and tears. There is a price to be paid. Are we prepared to pay that price as football authorities and players on the pitch?
After everything is said and done, one thing is certain, though, African teams cannot simply afford to go to Brazil next year, defending like a bunch of schoolboys. It is like taking the proverbial lambs to the slaughter! It is like putting sheep and goats among hyenas, leopards and lions to have frenzied feasts!

July 2013
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