Propulsion to Repulsion: the all too familiar story of African youth gems

It is a story that lends itself to poignant contrasts. There have been several theories used to explain away this phenomenon but African youth stars not being able to live to their initial hype is still quite troubling.

I need not remind anybody that the Black Satellites of Ghana are the first and as at the time of writing this, the only African team to ever win the FIFA U 20 world up. I need not remind anyone that at the third time of asking, wild celebrations; players running into one another with fists punching the air; members of the technical staff and substitutes locked up in warm embrace, characterized an evening that saw the young brave Ghanaians climb their way through the turnstiles of the Cairo International Stadium to receive their medals and trophy from the now suspended Ex-FIFA president Josef Blatter. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu’s strike from twelve yards out, gave the Black Satellites victory in sudden death after all five compulsory penalty kicks and 120mins of football failed to separate the two sides.

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Joyous Black satellites with the U20 world cup trophy at the Cairo International stadium, Egypt.

Almost all the pre match talks and analysis that typified expectations building up to the dream finale between Ghana and Brazil gave the fixture the right to be described as a David versus Goliath encounter. Ghana – two time losing finalist – locking horns with perennial world champions Brazil was somewhat an apt climax to what was a largely entertaining tournament in Egypt. They were two of the most exciting teams in the entire tournament but on paper were not as evenly matched as performances in previous competition would have people believe – one team simply didn’t have enough in itself to win a final match while the other had on four previous occasions, steamrolled over their opponents in an U-20 final.

“It’s a fantastic feeling when you reach the Final” Sellas Tetteh, the Ghana coach told Fifa.com with a simper, cutting the image of a coach deeply satisfied with the turn of events. But he was quick to admit his side’s shortcomings and was in no mood to underestimate the enormity of the task ahead. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win the trophy now. We’re not favourites and we’re up for the challenge. We’ve played good football throughout the tournament. We have no reason to be nervous. We have the required fitness, and we have the necessary determination.” Coach Sellas ended by saying.

The stage was set; the man with the whistle, book and cards sounded his whistle and a roar from the teeming fans – mostly Egyptians – got the game started.

The match started well for the Black Satellite, as Ghana impressed in the early exchanges. At least until the 37th minute when a moment of [in]decision from defender Daniel Addo resulted in a red card and that meant a further gulf had been added between the two teams. Down to 10 men, the Black Satellites held their own against their more accomplished opponents for well over eighty-three minutes and the game had to be decided through the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Speaking of a gulf in class, the occupants of the award podium at the end of the tournament painted and entirely different picture. Brazilian duo Alex Teixeira and Giuliano came second and third respectively to the golden ball winner Dominic Adiyiah, whose eight goals, electric play, good work ethic and a healthy level of confidence exhibited throughout the competition made him easily the most identifiable member of the Ghana squad. That was the birth of a golden generation, headlined by Andre Ayew and Dominic Adiyiah; the telltale signs, there for all to see.

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One would have been forgiven for imagining that, in a few years’ time, the Black Stars should be able to slug it out against the Seleçao of Brazil in any competitive fixture. After all, did we not beat them with a man down for close to 90 minutes at the U20s?

Unfortunately, nearly anytime Africa has excelled at a global youth football event, the story has largely remained the same. There has always been a clogged progression from promise to fully formed National stars – if ever they become one. The stories of Philip Osundo, Wilson Oruma and Macauley Christiantus to name a few have shown that the disconnect still remains.

But when does the bottom fall out and everything go all south?

It is a story that lends itself to poignant contrasts. There have been several theories used to explain this phenomenon: age-cheating and wrong career moves being so far the most posited.

Let’s take for instance, Sani Emmanuel, the 2009 U17 golden ball winner, though just turned 23, has been released by Bosnian outfit FK Sarajevo after similarly unsuccessful stints with six other teams in Europe. Then the news of Yussufu Yaffa whose age is being wildly disputed by AC Milan after the Italian giants accused the Gambian of falsifying his documents to appear 19 when in fact, he was 28 years old. The footy landscape is replete with several examples of players of African descent, who for all the promise they showed in their purportedly youthful stages have flattered to deceive on a grander stage. The thin thread that runs through all of these is that, the ages simply do not correspond to the levels of performance or measure up to the initial hype of most of these players. World class in their burgeoning years and alarmingly poor even before they blow off the candles on their twenty-fifth birthday cakes.

Then again, the other theory that springs up in many conversations bothering on the failures of many of our youth stars is that, they simply don’t make the best of career choices in the wake of a brilliant youth competition.

Of the eleven that started for Ghana in the finals against Brazil, only Andre Ayew and to some extent Jonathan Mensah and Rabiu Mohammed have their careers still on track. Dominic Adiyiah, Ranford Osei and Abeiku Quansah who between them scored 16 goals in 7 games at the world cup are currently without clubs. Daniel Addo, latif Salifu, Opoku Agyemang and Samuel Inkoom struggling to linger on in the consciences of football fans in Ghana. Daniel Agyei whose heroics in the penalty-shootouts got us the trophy recently returned to Accra based Liberty after failed spells in South Africa. Never mind those who were on the substitutes’ bench. There aren’t many positives to be gleaned from their stories.

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Andre Ayew’s summer move to English Premier League Outfit Swansea City makes him one of the few players still on track with his career.

A few days ago, it was reported that Liverpool FC were lining up a €38m bid for Alex Teixeira who was part of the losing Brazilian team on the night. Douglas Pereira dos Santos, now with Spanish giants Barcelona, deputizing his compatriot Dani Alves for the right-back slot. Maicon Marquez just recently made a big money move to Locomotiv Moscow in Russia while Josef de Souza Dias, at present, is a regular fixture in the Fenerbahçe line up; Douglas Costa has now assumed an integral role in Pep Guardiola’s FC Bayern Munich and I could go on and on.

The underlining reason for this apparent gulf in class of the clubs players of these two sets of teams are playing is the choices they made after the Mundial in Egypt. While Dominic Adiyiah jumped at the opportunity to join AC Milan – now without a club – his Brazilian counterpart, Douglas Costa stayed with his boyhood club Gremio before moving to Shaktar Donetsk to properly develop his craft and then finally to Bayern Munich last summer.

And while some players may never really cut it at the highest level as the high attrition rate of the sport will have it, a bit of due diligence and a head firmly screwed on will see a lot more players veer off lanes of mediocrity to paths of greatness.

 

 

Africa’s search for the next ‘Blatter’ – the suspended Swiss still holds the key

 

REFORM.

The keyword at the fore of the sermons being delivered by most, if not all, candidates contesting the Fifa presidency at the February 26 Extraordinary Congress. In the wake of a series of ethical issues and corruption scandals that have dragged Fifa’s reputation through the mud and knocked some of its biggest personalities — among them, suspended president Sepp Blatter, a number of vice-presidents and several others high up the Zurich-based establishment’s hierarchy — off their lofty, hitherto untouchable perches.

And while talks of a cleaner and more transparent ways of going about FIFA’s business sound sweet to many disillusioned with the world football governing body’s old, largely unpopular methods, not everyone buys into the idea of a Blatter-less organization — well, at least in Africa, that is the case to a very significant extent.

While the septuagenarian had his flaws and as a result (at least from what we know and have read) may be more popular on Mars than on Earth, he did more than enough during his 17-year tenure to be deemed highly esteemed by many in these parts.

Under Blatter, Africa got a fine measure of what it’s always craved but had previously been denied: money, attention, and respect. And it’s come in all forms really, including, but not limited to the awarding of hosting rights for major international competitions (the icing of which was the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa that brought with it a momentary increase in African representation at the Mundial), financial assistance, personnel training and, oh, those famous Goal Projects littered across Africa!

The latter, though originally a Fifa initiative, became as synonymous with Blatter as his squat shadow and bald pate, and arguably no confederation reaped as much from it as did Africa, with countries across the continent’s length and breadth richly milking and thriving on Fifa Blatter’s largesse.

Take, for instance, landlocked Chad.

Not by any means among the strongest of Africa’s footballing powerhouses, this Central African nation had little business receiving all it did while Blatter held sway: a reported 26 Fifa-commissioned projects since 2011, featuring artificial pitches, a technical centre, gleaming new headquarters for the country’s football governing body, as well as education seminars on marketing, refereeing and grassroots football.

And, remember, that’s just C-H-A-D, populated by only half as many people as you’d find in the whole of Texas.

Under no other Fifa boss would Chad — or any African land for that matter — have ever dreamt of getting so much. Before Blatter, it had been little more than crumbs that Africa constantly found on its plate, and Nigeria Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick couldn’t have summed that fact more succinctly when he shared his thoughts with the BBC just about the period of Blatter’s incredibly short-lived fourth re-election last year.

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“Blatter feels Africa, he sees Africa and he has imparted so much. . . ,” Pinnick gushed at the time. “We don’t want to experiment,” he added, expressing a heartfelt desire that’s surely echoed throughout Africa.

Yet while it is now forced to be by necessity, it’s unlikely Africa would settle on a replacement less sympathetic to its plight than Blatter was. It’s a feeling Blatter’s wannabe successors are all too conscious of, although only one — Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, President of the Asian Football Confederation — has thus far dared to unabashedly play that card.

When the Bahraini, along with fellow candidate Prince Ali bin Hussein (who lost to Blatter in May 2015′s polls) and the Uefa-backed Gianni Infantino, addressed some of West Africa’s most powerful football administrators at the 2016 Wafu Zone B General Assembly at the Mövenpick Ambassadorial Hotel in Accra on Tuesday, he sold to his audience nothing more than they wanted to hear, stopping just short of declaring himself Blatter 2.0.

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(Clockwise from top left) Tokyo Sexwale, South African Minister of Human Settlement, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein President of the Jordan Football Association, Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, President of the Asian Football Confederation, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino and Jerome Champagne.

“I have always supported Sepp Blatter,” Sheikh Salman boldly declared.

Continuing his serenading, Sheikh Salman stated: “You know we need to focus on the people who need more support and I am sure that, in the past, Sepp Blatter has been successful in introducing such programs to the countries that are in need but again I think this has to continue as well.”

No doubt many of those who gulped down Sheikh Salman’s words — notably Ghana’s FA president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, himself a prospective future Caf boss whose mandate as head of Wafu Zone B was renewed at said event — may have left the premises feeling pleased with what they’d heard from the one aspirant seemingly willing to go down a route similar to Mr. Blatter’s benevolence and succeed the Swiss in the role of Africa’s footballing patron saint.

It is, of course, a risky stance for the 50-year-old — as well as for any of the candidates who might wish to coo Africa from a similar angle — to adopt, given how unpopular it could make him with the West, to whom Blatter is as far drawn from niceness as imaginable. Even so, if Sheikh Salman shows his Blatter-esque side to his own Asian caucus — most of whom would also readily preach to you the gospel according to Blatter, considering all he did for them, too — as well as he portrayed it in Africa, that could be magic. Not forgetting the Dark Continent’s 50-odd votes, save the handful of inevitable dissenters and those who’d opt to back South African contender Tokyo Sexwale, could help breathe life into his dreams.

It isn’t that Africa doesn’t appreciate any reforms after Fifa’s first change in rulership in almost two decades. Oh, we do alright, but only in a different sense.

“My definition of reforms,” starts Pinnick again, “goes beyond fiscal discipline; it goes as far as what is the scientific explanation for CONMEBOL, who have just 12 members, having four slots going to the World Cup, and, we — Africa — with 54 members, have only five slots.

“To me, these are the reforms we should be talking about now. What is the scientific explanation for Uefa having 54 members, the same with Africa, but have 13 slots to go to the World Cup.”

And that, my dear friend, is as unequivocal as it could ever get. Africa has spoken, and may the ‘best’ Sepp man win it over.