Osasu Obayiuwana: Of talent, opportunity and global business sense

Michael Emenalo is, without question, one of European football’s interesting oddities.

As the technical director of English Premiership side Chelsea, where he undoubtedly has the listening ear of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, the Nigerian belongs to the exclusive club of Africans who’ve transcended their club careers into positions of power in the game’s corridors.

Pape Diouf, the Senegalese who started out as a journalist and player’s agent in France, eventually becoming the president of French club Olympique Marseille and Finidi George, the former Ajax player – also Nigerian – who went on to become the International Director for Spain’s Real Betis, his old club, are amongst the minute few that have broken the proverbial glass (or is it racial?) ceiling.

With the cold, hard realisation that high-profile Africans, who’ve distinguished themselves as top players in the European club game are, so far, unable to make the evolution to head coaching jobs, the significance of Emenalo’s rise and surprising – but very welcomed – longevity within the Chelsea structure cannot be overstated.

The former Nigeria international, who played at the 1994 World Cup finals, hardly had a high-profile playing career, featuring for Molenbeek in Belgium, Notts County in England and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, where he fortuitously met with its erstwhile manager Avram Grant, whose subsequent ascension to managerial prominence at Stamford Bridge provided the 41-year old, at the time, with a career-defining – if not life-changing – opportunity.

Having started out as Chelsea’s chief scout in 2007 and outliving the brief tenure of his career benefactor, who left the club five years ago, Emenalo must have displayed a great deal of knowledge and administrative nous to have survived the six coaches that have subsequently been at the helm since Grant’s departure (Luis Felipe Scolari, Ray Wilkins, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas, and Rafael Benitez) whilst growing in stature, in the eyes of the club hierarchy and its ruthless owner.

Considering the fact that the English media did not hesitate to make fun of his appointment (“Michael Who?”) when he first arrived at Chelsea seven years ago, no one has any lingering doubt that Emenalo is much more than a tokenistic decoration to the landscape at Stamford Bridge.

Not even the return of the ‘Happy One’ is changing his status, as Emenalo remains in charge of player recruitment and the development of the academy.

Unfortunately, getting Emenalo to talk, on the record, about his Chelsea experience, which would be opening an intriguing, as well as very valuable, window on his experiences, is akin to a camel, with an extremely large hump, passing through the eye of a needle.

And it is certainly not for my want of trying.

On the occasions that I have managed, over the years, to reach him on the phone, he has bluntly refused to go beyond exchanging pleasantries, which is no surprise, considering the club’s less-than-amiable attitude to the media.

With a comfortable salary and powerful job, throwing light on the lair of his Russian employer, who loves to exercise his imperial powers from the shadows, is just not worth the trouble.

It’s a far cry from the less guarded bloke, with whom I had a free flowing conversation at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. C’est la vie, I suppose…

Emenalo’s unexpected rise to prominence continues to remind us of the old saying – which seems deeply entrenched in football – that it is not just what you know that matters, but whom you know, as the former is a common denominator in many cases.

The economics graduate of Boston University might have remained a coach of young girls at the Tucson Soccer Academy in Arizona, where he had been in charge of the under-12s side, had his former Israeli coach not acknowledged and appreciated the fact that Emenalo possessed qualities that should earn him passage to the game’s rarefied levels.

There are many people within football, with the intellect and drive, to improve the quality of its administration and coaching. But they haven’t got a prayer of even getting a foot on the first rung of the managerial/administrative ladder, after their careers are over, because meritocracy is often not the deciding factor, as to who begins the climb.

As long as the recruitment pool is largely restricted to those within the ‘old boy’s network’, which even Avram Grant did not really belong to – as he certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to emerge from Israeli football and manage an English Premiership side if a Ken Bates, for instance, had remained Chelsea’s owner – football will deny itself the talent it needs to rejuvenate itself.

The game needs the very best hands, at all levels, wherever they may come from, in order to evolve to new plateaus of performance.

When one considers that talent, in any sphere of endeavour, is rare, isn’t football’s best option to ensure that it can spread its dragnet as far as it globally can?

To pursue a different path – which is largely the case now – just isn’t good business sense.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1660275053labto1660275053ofdlr1660275053owedi1660275053sni@a1660275053nawui1660275053yabo.1660275053usaso1660275053

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.