Osasu Obayiuwana: What’s an African performance worth?

Arsene Wenger is, clearly, not a fan of individual awards for players, such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or, for the reason that the “endorsement of an individual goes against the essence of our sport”, which is about team effort.

“I fight like a mad man against the award, which hurts football… the player is prompted to favour individual performance over that of the team,” he argued during his appearance on Telefoot, a programme on French television.

I am sure the Arsenal manager and those who share his position accept, even if grudgingly, that awards glorifying the brilliance of a single person in a collective sport are not going to disappear anytime soon. Swimming against that tide is fruitless effort.

What really bothers me though, as the season of awards is upon us, is whether their recipients are fully deserving of the diadems they receive.

In African football, two awards are regarded as the most prestigious – the official ‘Player of the Year’ title awarded by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the alternative version, awarded by the BBC.

Whilst the CAF award is decided by a vote of national coaches and team captains, the latter is decided by a fan vote, subsequent to a shortlist drawn up by journalists across the continent.

But both awards, regardless of their contrasting selection formats, leave me with a nagging question I am yet to receive a satisfactory answer to. Is it important that Africa’s top player must distinguish himself at the continent’s top competition, the Cup of Nations, whenever the tournament is played in the year an award is given?

This question goes to the root of whether the continent’s showpiece event, or any of its competitions for that matter, are relevant when deciding whom its top player ought to be.

Ivorian Yaya Toure won the 2013 BBC African Player of the Year award on Monday, in addition to the official CAF title he got in 2012.

Without question, Yaya is a very talented player (I’d be a certified idiot to say otherwise), whose exquisite skills were instrumental to the English Premiership title that Manchester City clinched in that nail-biting finale of the 2011/2012 season.

And the central midfielder remains an influential performer for the Elephants, which will be making its third consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals in Brazil.

But Toure’s performances over the last two Africa Cup of Nations, in 2012 and 2013, were particularly disappointing.

His form in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea hardly rose to the occasion in that dramatic final against Zambia and it was certainly muted in the subsequent tournament in South Africa, where Cote D’Ivoire were knocked out in the quarter-final, by eventual winners Nigeria.

That chequered form is not what should be seen from a player that is voted as the continent’s best.

As the tribute piece on the BBC’s football website admitted “2013 was not the most successful in terms of silverware for Toure – he did not manage to win anything with club or country.”

Africa’s top player should certainly have a better scorecard than that. He should exhibit top form in the tournament that matters most, apart from the World Cup finals, to Africans.

CAF’s award has been just as controversial, particularly when Togo’s Sheyi Adebayor won it in 2008.

Even though he won nothing with Arsenal, his club at the time, or his national team, Adebayor was picked ahead of the Egyptian Mohamed Aboutreka, who played a decisive role in Ahly winning the African Champions League and the triumph of Egypt at the Cup of Nations in Ghana that year.

The choice of Adebayor did a lot of damage to the credibility of the award, as Aboutreka was clearly denied what he had rightfully earned.

In an award year where there is no major international competition, like the Cup of Nations, the form of African players for their European clubs would be, whether anyone likes it or not, the determining factor in selecting the continent’s best.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an Africa-based player to win the top individual prize ahead of his colleagues in Europe.

But there is, at least in my mind, no question that in any award year in which a Cup of Nations is played, it should certainly be an extremely important factor, even if not the primary one, in who is picked as the continent’s best player.

That’s just plain common sense, isn’t it?

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.l1685861968labto1685861968ofdlr1685861968owedi1685861968sni@a1685861968nawui1685861968yabo.1685861968usaso1685861968

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.