Since Mexico ’86, when Morocco’s Atlas Lions became the first African side to reach the second round at the World Cup finals, the continent has managed, in the six tournaments that have followed, to maintain an unbroken presence in the knockout stages.
But on the seven occasions that an African team has reached the second round or the quarter-finals, the managers at the helm have come from every other part of the world except – yes, you guessed correctly – Africa.
Brazilian Jose Faria was in charge of Morocco in 1986; Russian Valery Nepomnyashchy led Cameroon to the quarter-finals at Italia ’90; Clemens Westerhof, from the Netherlands, was Nigeria’s coach at their debut in 1994, whilst Frenchman Bruno Metsu was the mastermind behind Senegal’s memorable performance at the 2002 tournament in Korea/Japan.
And in case you’re thinking that I have made some glaring omission in the roll call, I haven’t…
Serbia deserves a special mention, because they hold the distinction of producing the record number of managers – three – that have led African teams to the knockout rounds of the World Cup Bora Milutinovic, with Nigeria at France ’98, Ratomir Dujkovic, at the 2006 finals with Ghana’s Black Stars, and Milovan Rajevac, who picked up from where his compatriot left the Ghanaians, leading them to the quarterfinals at South Africa 2010.
Should Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi or Ghana’s Kwesi Appiah guide their teams to the knockout rounds in Brazil, they’ll make be making history as the first African coaches to do so.
Cote D’Ivoire, Algeria and Cameroon, all managed by Europeans, are clearly excluded from this particular race.
The glaring absence of African managers from this 28-year-old list is a conspicuous reminder of the rather terse relationship that the major national federations across the continent have with them, whenever they opt – grudgingly – for a homegrown coach.
African managers hardly – if ever – get the respect of their employers or get the wages and working conditions given to their Europeans counterparts.
And they have to deal, constantly, with their decisions being scrutinised, often in a brutal, unfair fashion.
With less than a hundred days to the World Cup, when you would expect the Super Eagles to be putting finishing touches to their preparations, relations between Keshi and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) are worsening.
Accusing the 2013 Nations Cup winning coach, who successfully led Nigeria through the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, of being insubordinate, the NFF has written a letter to Keshi, listing his alleged acts of indiscipline and demanding a written response.
Keshi, who came close to quitting the Nigeria job a year ago, barely 24 hours after winning the Nations Cup in South Africa, over his frustration with what he described as constant interference from key NFF officials, appears to have adopted a fatal attitude, concerning his future with Nigeria, despite his excellent record since taking charge.
“This job we have (coaching) is [one] that they hire you today and they fire you tomorrow. I have done my best in my job for Nigeria and if they (the NFF) decide to fire me and bring someone else, so be it,” said Keshi who has been owed wages for several months at a time.
It is a statement that betrays the heightening tension between both sides, at a time when harmony and co-operation is most needed.
Following last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil, where Nigeria represented the continent, as African champions, NFF president Aminu Maigari made the rather shocking statement that Keshi, as head coach, would no longer have the sole prerogative of picking the national team.
Maigari criticised Keshi for picking certain players for the game against Spain, which Nigeria lost 3-0.
“Spain brought their best players, but we did not. Why would you bring a local (Nigerian league) player to play Spain, on such a big stage?” Maigari asked.
“This is unacceptable. We have experienced players that were not selected and this is where we have to step in.
“The coach doesn’t have the sole responsibility on squad selection. We all have to contribute. This team belongs to 165 million people,” Maigari said.
In response, the former Anderlecht and Strasbourg player did not hesitate to insist on his independence, as any self-respecting head coach would do.
“I’m the coach and I can honestly listen to constructive ideas on how we can improve as a team.
“But no one has to tell me whom to pick and whom not to select. If the team fails, the coach is responsible,” Keshi reminded his employers.
Nigeria will certainly not end its 16-year absence from the World Cup’s knockout stages (the last time they reached the second round was at France ’98), if the relationship between coach and federation deteriorates further.
If Keshi, deservedly voted CAF’s ‘Coach of the Year’ for 2013, is under this intense pressure, the burden on Ghana’s Kwesi Appiah – who will become the first Ghanaian to manage the Black Stars at the World Cup – can only be imagined.
It’s a hard, hard life being an African coach…
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 email@example.com
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.