Osasu Obayiuwana: Discovering the art of defending

Whilst working on the BBC’s telecast of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, occasionally sharing work space with ‘Match of the Day’ pundits, I couldn’t help but ask Gary Lineker, the former England striker, a nagging question I had – about his memories of that Italia ’90 World Cup quarter-final tie against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions.

For anyone who watched that nail-biting tie in Naples, 23 years ago, the two penalties Lineker subsequently converted, after the central Africans were seven minutes away from a 2-1 win – and a historic berth in the semi-finals – pulled England’s chestnuts out of the fire.

“Without those penalties, do you think England could have come back into the match and won it by scoring goals in open play?” I wondered.

“No, we wouldn’t have,” the 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner answered honestly, admitting it was the inexcusable defending of the Cameroonians that handed England an unexpected lifeline, which teams with a higher level of tactical savvy would not have given them.

The lack of nuanced defending has remained, for decades, a huge problem for African teams competing at the global level, when their midfield invention and attacking creativity often gives them a decent chance to effectively compete against the world’s best.

Nigeria’s 3-0 defeat to Spain, in their FIFA Confederations Cup match on Sunday, serves as an extremely good reminder of the problem.

Anyone who did not watch the game would assume the reigning World and European Champions made mincemeat out of the Nigerians, a thought which, normally, wouldn’t be out of place.

In truth, the result did a great job of disguising the difficulty that the Spaniards had, in containing the rampaging Nigerians, who gave Vicente Del Bosque, Spain’s coach, a damn good fright.

The three goals Nigeria conceded exposed defending errors that are fatal – an inability, even with superior numbers, to close down quick-witted strikers in your penalty area; a consistent failure to maintain a tight formation; kamikaze attacking – that leave goalkeepers with no adequate protection – and rather curious man-marking, which gives opponents the extra metre to get a crack at goal.

That these problems persist, even though most of the leading African national teams often play with an all-European club based defensive quartet – which presumes they should have an understanding of the art – indicates the existence of a problem that is deep rooted.

And the crux of the problem lies in the stark contrast between the long-term tactical education received by the continental European footballer and his African contemporary.

Several, if not most, top-level European defenders from Italy, France, Spain and Holland, who begin their professional club careers in their late teens or early 20s, have been at the end of a rather intensive education.

Well qualified coaches painstakingly take them through the dos and don’ts, with repetitive drills, for several years, often from a pre-teenage period.

This ensures their match reflexes, assuming they make the eventual climb to the professional ranks, instinctively defaults to what they have been taught.

Such an education is, without question, invaluable in high-pressure match situations, where consistency in performance often makes the difference between winning and losing, especially in games where opponents are evenly matched.

Compare this to the lot of his African counterpart – he often makes the transition into the European club game in his early twenties, lacking the advantages of tactical schooling from a young age.

He then has the herculean task of having to play ‘catch-up’, if his dream for a long career in the European club game is not to come to a rude end.

“We have to ensure that tactical awareness is put into our youngsters at a very early age,” says former South Africa captain Lucas Radebe, who had an outstanding English Premiership career as a central defender with Leeds United.

“To develop the right skills you really need the right coaches to ensure you can develop them.”

As it stands, the quality of coaching throughout the continent, from the schoolboy level, right up to the professional club ranks, is largely ill-equipped to instil the needed defensive values in African players.

It was only in 2009, that CAF, African football’s governing body, decided to establish a system for the training and licensing of coaches. The governing body has been in existence for over 50 years (it was established in 1957) before deciding to take what was clearly a long overdue step.

Can CAF’s initiative produce a critical mass of coaches, with the capacity to infuse youngsters – and even older players – with the needed degree of tactical discipline and nuance, which ensures the continent’s teams have ’rounded’ players, with the capacity to effectively compete at the World Cup and other global competitions?

Judging by the antecedents of the body, I’ve got to admit that I’m sceptical. But I am hoping that they prove me wrong.

And the national associations across the continent are certainly not bereft of responsibility for the sorry state of affairs. They have failed to develop a pool of qualified coaches and sustainable programmes that can produce the needed quality of footballer that the African game, especially its league competitions, needs now.

Until the defensive discipline, not to mention tactical awareness of African defenders, whilst playing for their national teams, can match the quality of play in midfield and attack, the climb to the pinnacle of the world game remains a very steep one indeed.

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.l1660275742labto1660275742ofdlr1660275742owedi1660275742sni@a1660275742nawui1660275742yabo.1660275742usaso1660275742

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