With roughly five months to the World Cup finals, the burning question of how the African quintet will perform in Brazil and what it might say, about the competitive state of the continental game, will soon be answered.
But what really bothers me, as we begin another year, way beyond whether an African team is able, for the first-time, to reach the semi-finals – as desirable as that is – is when the various countries within the continent will get down to the much-needed business of hammering out sustainable plans for long-term development.
The fact that European club football remains the unavoidable finishing school for the technical and tactical development of Africa’s top talent is a dangerous, unstable model that only brings accidental benefits to the continent.
Countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and others like them, only have a pool of players from which they can form decent national teams for the sole reason that European clubs remain convinced, for now, that the infusion of talent from Africa is key to having a competitive edge.
But the discomforting fact remains that only a trickle of talent, certainly in the low single digits percentage, can move to top European clubs, as compared to the overwhelming number of players that largely have no choice but to remain at home throughout their club careers.
This, of course, leaves most countries in the continent in a rather precarious position. How can countries effectively compete at the global level or have a thriving football culture when the overwhelming majority of its talent pool is not (or cannot be) effectively developed within its own borders?
And another question goes begging too. What will happen to the growth of African national teams that rely on Europe-based club players, should there be a radical change in recruitment policies that effectively shuts them out of that market?
Many, convinced that European club football cannot do without the talent and flair of African players, will certainly laugh at the last question and say that such a situation is unreasonable to contemplate.
The globalisation of the game, with the flow of talent, from one country and continent to another, is a door that can never be shut, they’ll argue.
Whilst they certainly have an arguable point, it is ill advised for most, if not all, countries in Africa to be at the mercy of a business model that can be altered without reference to them.
It ought to alarm Africa’s football leaders, especially at the national FA level, that its ability to have top-class players for its national teams is dependent on a European process that does not care about its interests. And why should it? But it appears that the gravity of the situation is yet to concentrate their minds.
Argentina, Brazil, France, England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Uruguay – the eight countries that have won the World Cup – share, or did share at some point, the distinction of having strong domestic football leagues, which gave them the backbone to become global powers.
It is no surprise that countries in this ‘club of eight’, like reigning world champions Spain, whose domestic league – and, most importantly, the systematic development of local talent within it – ensures it remains in the ascendant, in contrast to England, the world’s wealthiest league, unable to repeat its 1966 win, because its football culture has sacrificed, especially since the Premier League began in 1992, the development of local talent on the altar of global lucre.
For the foreseeable future, it would be hard to dispute that the wealth of European football will continue to attract the best players in the world. It is a reality the African game will have to contend with.
But the bulk of African players, who’ll inevitably remain on the continent, must be given the appropriate environment – a thriving domestic league, in which the right technical and tactical values must be taught – if countries are to have lasting football cultures and talent pools, on which the bedrock of sustainable continental and global success is built.
It is only when African countries effectively develop the larger sum of talent domiciled within its borders, and not remain at the mercy of European club football to develop that tiny percentage flowing to it, will they have cracked the kernel of sustainable development. The old saying that charity begins at home has never rung truer.
Witnessing an African team reach the last four in Brazil – or even in the final – would be a historic moment I would obviously relish. But it would be nothing more than a very pleasurable diversion.
The real victory for African football, in the long-term, will be guaranteeing that its development and global ascendance is largely within its own hands and not subjected to the whims and caprices of outsiders.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.