2014 World Cup Moment of Truth for Africa

 

The moment of truth has arrived. The tournament that everybody has been waiting for has arrived. Lovers of the beautiful game in Africa are stating that it now or never. It would be great for an African country to get to the finals of this year’s event. Semi-final is not good enough!

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 spur the continent to review its participation at this premier global football showcase. This review should be spearheaded by CAF itself utilising its technical wing to address shortcomings 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 on the very same matter. These problems are not unique to Nigeria alone. 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, Issa Hayatou 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.  Despite the civil strife and shambolic preparations by the host country, Brazil, the tournament is here. All what is left is for the referee to blow the whistle for the official resumption of footballing gladiatorial hostilities as well as intense rivalry among the best 32 nations of the world. May the best team win and we pray that it will be from Africa!

June 2014
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