Osasu Obayiuwana: Africa must find an edge to smash the ‘glorious loser’ tag

With two African teams making the knockout rounds in Brazil, the continent has obviously written a new chapter in tournament history.

Ever since Morocco became the first African team, at the 1986 finals in Mexico, to reach the Round of 16, the continent has maintained a solitary presence there.

Considering that I had, in a previous piece, seriously considered the possibility that its five teams were at risk of being knocked out in the first round, it is a mighty relief that a doomsday scenario never came to pass.

But if, like myself, you demand that Africa’s representatives should never be satisfied with putting up ‘respectable performances’ and ought to demonstrate that they are serious World Cup contenders, because they certainly have the talent to be that, the scorecard in Brazil is not satisfactory, particularly when this tournament could have been the first time that an African side made the semi-finals.

That would have been guaranteed, had Nigeria and Algeria met in the quarterfinals.

With France and Germany being their respective opponents in the Round of 16, I am certain to elicit a few snide remarks from those who refuse to contemplate that either side could have been beaten by their African opponents.

But any honest, knowledgeable watcher of both matches would agree that had the Nigerian and Algerian sides demonstrated a greater degree of defensive discipline and match concentration at crucial moments, they could have won their games.

And Ivory Coast would have certainly earned Africa a third spot in the knockout round, had they not been defensively reckless against Greece, although the rather dubious penalty the Greeks got did not help matters.

What this World Cup has undoubtedly shown is that the tactical gap, between the game’s aristocrats and the so-called upstarts, continues to narrow.

As ‘smaller’ teams like Costa Rica and even Iran have shown, if they maintain defensive discipline, refrain from kamikaze attacking and surge forward only when there is a real opportunity, they can compete against supposedly superior opponents, who will have to draw upon every trick in their repertoire to earn a victory over them.

This World Cup has demonstrated that it is the team that pays attention to minute tactical details, even under extreme match pressure, that will snatch wins by a hair’s breadth, as Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands have done.

The big post-World Cup question that national teams across Africa have to answer, without further delay, is how they can shake off this ‘glorious loser’ tag – which I find quite patronising – and develop the needed tactical edge and mental focus to ensure that they win games in which they are able to dominate an opponent or, at least, play at par.

Going back to my piece, ‘Discovering the art of defending’, written in June last year, I will repeat the things I observed at the time:

“That these [tactical] 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…

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.”

This World Cup has served as an eloquent testimony to my position.

Brazil, Germany, Argentina and The Netherlands are the teams in the race for the top four spots at this tournament because they have the capacity to grind out wins, even ugly ones, against difficult opposition.

That ability comes from developing a crop of players that have the quality of thought and excellence of execution that emerges at decisive moments.

Equipping African players and teams with this match-winning edge, as well as ensuring they prepare for World Cups backed by competent backroom support and not being caught up in distracting, embarrassing squabbles over bonuses and match allowances (a matter I will address in my next column) are the only things that can change the continent’s narrative.

African football has been stuck at the quarterfinals since Italia ’90. Its teams will not cross that frontier until they possess that extra bit, which smashes that thin – but yet significant – barrier between those that make up the World Cup numbers and those with the will and capability to win the trophy.

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.l1721682698labto1721682698ofdlr1721682698owedi1721682698sni@a1721682698nawui1721682698yabo.1721682698usaso1721682698.

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