2014 FIFA World Cup: Africa’s crisis of expectations

 

It is indeed a World Cup year and no matter how hard we try to run away from football matters, they still manage to grab headlines and hog attention throughout the world. Africa is no exception.  The love of the “beautiful game” is so great that when pronouncements are made by football authorities, almost every one listens.

Recent reports emanating from the Confederation of African Football (CAF), whereby the President, Issa Hayatou, was encouraging the African representatives, to reach at least the semi-finals or further at this year’s FIFA World Cup, are indeed very welcome. However, as much as the African football lovers may welcome these pronouncements by the head of African football, they are long overdue. Even more important, CAF must actually take active interest in the preparations of the various African representatives. The preparations ranging from the technical on-field aspects to off-field administration and management issues are all very critical to the success of African nations at this year’s event.

African representatives have only progressed to the quarter-final stages of the FIFA World Cup in the past. Cameroon tried their best in 1990 in Italy, with Senegal and Ghana crashing out at the same stage in Japan/Korea in 2002 and in South Africa in 2010 respectively. Considering the talent that is at the disposal of Africa, these milestones are actually an illustration of under-achievement by Africa. They are not really a cause for celebration but should be spur the continent to review its participation at this premier global show-case for football. This review should be spear-headed by CAF itself utilizing its technical wing to address short-comings in preparation in order to improve performances.

African countries, should have, at least by now, reached the semi-finals or finals of the FIFA World Cup. However, every time, the favourites from the continent have flattered to deceive and disappoint. Maladministration, inadequate or in some instances, shambolic or chaotic preparations for the World Cup are usually the causes of Africa’s undoing. Basic issues are not attended to and this, more often than not, causes great frustration amongst the players.

For example, in the case of Nigeria, it is not a secret that national coach, Stephen Keshi and his technical team sometimes go for months without being paid their salaries. Furthermore, revelations that Nigerian national team football players were refusing to leave their Namibian training camp to go to last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil due to a dispute over allowances and bonuses are a cause for grave concern.  The friction has already started this year between the two parties over the very same matter. These problems are not unique to Nigeria. It seems that before every World Cup or Africa Cup of Nations, conflicts erupt between the players and their respective football associations. These conflicts distract players from their core business, which is to win matches.

Africa has contributed tremendously to world football by supplying fantastic talent mostly to the lucrative leagues in Europe.  However, this has not translated to success at the most prestigious football tournament in the world, the FIFA World Cup. Although African countries have won the Under-17 and Under-20 events as well as the Olympic Football (Under-23) tournaments, success at the “big one” seems to elude Africa.

Over and above the purely technical and administrative aspects of preparations, there is also need for inputs from sports psychologists for the various African teams. Sport psychology is very much neglected in the conditioning and preparations of teams for major sports competitions. The surprising thing is that Africa’s adversaries are heavily dependent on their sports psychologists to mentally prepare their own teams. There is, therefore, a need for “winning mentality” to be instilled amongst the African representatives at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  

What is this “winning mentality?” According to the illustrated examples of modern sport, the winning mentality is that extra factor which overrides tough conditions, fatigue and all other challenges that may confront a competitor. As Muhammad Ali aptly stated, “Champions are not made in the gym”. They have that extra reserve of strength and they can always go the extra mile, against all odds.  This is very true coming from a man who is deemed to have been the greatest fighter in professional boxing. Muhammad fought against bigger, stronger and faster opponents in the form of Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and George Foreman and others. In the end, he prevailed because of superior mental toughness which is an element of sport psychology.

The question that goes through the minds of many coaches is how this “never say die” attitude can be instilled amongst elite performers. Clearly, some have it and others do not. Some sports performers wilt at the slightest indication that things are going to get tough. Others try to persevere but ultimately give up. Others simply do not give up. For them submission, surrender, defeat, draw or compromise is taboo. Most African countries fail at the World Cup, not because they are not talented but they are not mentally prepared!

From a strategic standpoint, African countries must aim to start their campaigns with a win in order to enhance chances of progressing to the knockout stages. Very few countries that start the tournament with a draw or loss ever progress to the knockout stages. Success must be planned. It does not just happen. Obviously, the coaches of the African representatives will have conducted a lot of research and homework on their opponents in the group stages. Hopefully, they will leave no stone unturned since limited knowledge of opponents can lead to disastrous performances not just in football but in any sport.

Despite all the deficiencies of CAF and their ability or otherwise,  to adequately support the African teams , the President is definitely very right  in calling upon them to raise their level of performance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. We can only hope and pray that the African representatives will bring their “A” game to Brazil. We cannot wait for the tournament to start!

March 2014
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