An African disaster it may have been but Brazil 2014 has been a spectacular success for Kenya. It is our World Cup of historic proportions.
Any objective assessment of our condition, current or the foreseeable future shows that playing in the league of Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, even when they are hobbled by the thieving ways of their football officials, remains a pipe dream for us. It is thus wise to calibrate our ambitions to fit our capacity.
This is where Divock Origi comes in.
The World Cup is the ultimate show on earth and Origi has taken it by storm. He is one of the great revelations of the 2014 edition which, for Kenya, will be eternally associated with him. With his every move, an old Kodak Film advertising slogan came to mind: “Let the memories begin”. He has made Belgium a lovely name to pronounce. And Kenyans have appropriated every Belgian success as if it were achieved by their hapless Harambee Stars.
His uncle, Austin Oduor, the only captain of a Kenyan team to hold aloft a continental cup, told me: “With his performance, it is evident that we can produce good players.
“I don’t know what positive effect this will have on Kenya but I think it entirely depends on what new technologies are introduced in our game by its managers. Doing things the old way means we remain where we are.
“And, of course, the very first thing to do is to be transparent with money; to be honest with it to a fault.”
Austin says that “in Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Kalahari, that belt coast to coast,” money and honesty don’t have a history of mixing. “If Sh20 is due to Austin, an official will make sure Austin gets Sh5 — and even then only after a lot of demanding — and he keeps Sh15.
“It is not poverty; it is culture. I honestly don’t know how this culture will change but change it must if ever we are going to move forward.”
As he and his Gor Mahia team mates feverishly worked to win the Nelson Mandela Cup in 1987, officials concurrently raised colossal amounts of money in the name of the players, whom they promised would be given a plot of land each upon victory. It all turned out to be a hoax; the men in suits and ties pocketed everything, leaving the players high and dry.
Maybe before the great final they should have waited until they heard that Esperance were inside their dressing room at the Safaricom Kasarani Stadium and then announced that they were not leaving their hotel rooms until they were handed their ‘title deeds’.
This has been proved to work, and their tale of woe would most likely have ended differently. That has been the norm in African football since Zaire pioneered it in 1974.
In Belgium, Austin’s nephew has no such problems — a deal is a deal. Lucky Divock. Barring anything untoward, such as grievous injury, his future is bright. His name is already being mentioned in the same breath as the big guns of the English Premiership. But for his age mates in Kenya, it’s doom and gloom — at least in the opinion of his uncle.
Austin says: “If you are talking about Kenya’s future, you should be talking about players of the age 15 years and below.
“Those have a chance, if there is a dramatic improvement in management standards. But for those 16 and above, I would call them a lost generation. They should be flowing now, products of projects such as the Fifa Goal Project.
“But it is dead.”
To paraphrase one American warmonger, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. What do we know about the future of Kenya post-Brazil 2014 with its unforgettable superstar?
Known knowns: The country will continue producing football players of great quality. The only place for that talent to flourish is Europe but very few will have the opportunity to go there. Many will thus be content to ply their trade locally, where incentives to give the best of oneself are woefully short. Their careers will be short and unremarkable.
Known unknowns: That the management of the game will become professional in the future and attract huge sponsorships. That a robust nationwide youth programme will take root and provide the eternal base for a strong national team.
And that a pro-player culture of transparency will become the established way of doing business and rows over unfulfilled contracts and promises will be a thing of the past.
Unknown unknowns: That the country’s volatile politics will not set it aflame, resulting in a tragic self-deconstruction that will render any talk about football immaterial.
* * *
In Brazil, Stephen Keshi and Kwesi Appiah were swimming against a tide that began in 1934. That is when Egypt became the first African country to participate in the World Cup, then only in its second edition.
Rather than rely on home talent, Egypt opted for the services of a Scotsman, James McRea. And with that decision, Africa’s most successful footballing nation away from the World Cup — going by Nation’s Cup and Club Cup trophies won — had set a precedent that dominates the African game to this day.
Cote d’Ivoire, Angola, Ghana, Togo and Tunisia represented Africa in the 2006 finals in Germany. Of these, only Angola, guided by the country’s beloved Luis Oliveira Goncalves, paraded a local coach.
And in 2010, in the tournament hyped as the African World Cup, six countries — hosts South Africa, Cameroon, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana — contested the finals. But only Algeria had a native coach in Rabah Saadane. No African even coached another African side.
In fact, in that year’s Africa Cup of Nations hosted by Angola, just six of the 16 finalists were led by African coaches and yet, since 1957 when it was first played, this trophy has been won in equal measure by foreign — mostly European — and African coaches.
These are intriguing statistics. Results show that African coaches have performed just as well as their overseas counterparts in the continent’s toughest contest despite such a consistently low level of representation over the decades. What could explain this?
Almost without exception, African national football teams are the innocent face of the countries they represent — an ethnic, religious and regional patchwork. In players from these diverse backgrounds, people see themselves represented in the national team and, for once, internecine struggles for political and economic advantage are forgotten as an entire population rallies to the flag.
African football teams are thus a powerful rallying point for their fractured societies. The great Ghanaian footballer Abedi Ayew Pele said: “I can’t imagine what Africa would be like without football; I am sure it would be a boring place where people would fight all the time.
“Football has shown that it can bring peace in many places on our continent. I believe in the power of football; the game has made life better for many people and that’s why I don’t want to imagine an African continent without football.”
Now, the team is a collective while the coach is one individual. The selection of African football coaches often brings out the raw emotions, positive and negative, that selection of high public figures in the continent always does. People relapse into their tribal cocoons because of the individual national prestige that goes with coaching a winning national team.
CORRECTNESS OF A NAME
As in other spheres of public life, selection of national coaches becomes an emotionally charged matter and the most deserving is not always the one who gets it — quite often, it has to do with the correctness of his name. It therefore becomes safer and universally agreeable to settle for a neutral foreigner.
He normally comes at a hefty price, one that the local federation is often hard pressed to afford. Still, this is a price worth paying in keeping kindred conflicts at bay.
A foreigner is also not hamstrung by debilitating familiarity. There are many brilliant African tacticians who would not elicit any respect among their compatriots who know only too well the dire circumstances they and their relatives live in. Players, especially the foreign-based ones, have been known to adopt haughty attitudes to such coaches.
In fact, among Keshi’s strengths is putting his Europe-based star players in their place. While winning the Nations Cup in South Africa last year, he shut out a few and only readmitted them for Brazil when he determined that they had learnt who was boss.
Egypt’s Hassan Shehata is one of a kind. As national coach between 2004 and 2011, he steered Egypt to three successive Nations Cups – 2006, 2008 and 2010 — and the record hauled Egypt to number nine in Fifa rankings.
He is Egypt’s longest-serving coach.
Shehata has shown what African tacticians can do. How ironic that it is his country that set the precedent of relying heavily on foreign coaches 80 years ago.
* * *
My heart skipped a beat when I read this: Neymar, the current poster boy of Brazilian football, has admitted he is happy to “win ugly” because winning is all that counts. Can you imagine this coming from a Brazilian, leave alone the successor to Gerson, Pele, Zico, Socrates and Falcao? What is the world coming to?
Brazil playing mean, defensive football as part of their winning strategy? Brazilian players plotting how to stop other players from playing? This is the new norm in the spiritual home of football? Lord have mercy.
* * *
Tele Santana, the coach who resurrected jogo bonito (the ‘beautiful game’) and took it to the stratosphere with his 1982 and 1986 World Cup squads, must be turning in his grave.
This is what Neymar had to say: “You can’t always enjoy yourself and win 4-0 or 5-0. Football nowadays is so difficult, so even, that the team who is most committed on the pitch ends up winning. I don’t want a show. That’s the last thing we are trying to do. We are not necessarily here to produce a spectacle. We are here to run to the end, until we are tired, and come out as winners.”
Of course winning desperately matters but in Brazil it has to come with something extra, something only Brazil can produce. But now I think I get it. I have struggled to recognise Brazil since this tournament began but I have not been able to do so. I am reminded of their 1970 coach Mario Zagallo.
Against Peru, Brazil had a bad first half and they retreated to the dressing room to find their coach red in the face. He went for their jugular, using almost unprintable words to describe their sloppy play. He harangued them throughout the rest session and then dismissed them for the second half with this memorable clincher: “Go out and play like Brazil!”
And they did. Many football purists still reckon that that team was the greatest ever.
I have felt the irrepressible urge to tell Brazil to play like Brazil. I am exasperated by their misplaced passes and wild clearances. They have worked too hard against teams they would have been expected to breeze past and, in the case of Chile, only the ‘crossbar of God’ — and the hand of Julio Ceasar — could save them.
And now Neymar has let us in on it. Maybe they will still win, this time Brazil playing like Germany, but I miss the old Brazil. Brazil, oh Brazil, please go out there and play like Brazil!
By Roy Gachuhi