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Winning ways of the West

The dust has now settled after the initial horn locking in the group stage and Africa’s best eight teams have been identified. Only one, namely South Africa, does not come from West Africa.

That’s amazing if you ask me.

In as much as West Africa sent half of the Afcon contingent I, for one, never expected such a show of force. I envisioned minnows like Cape Verde, or teams like Burkina Faso and Niger, to be pummeled silly and find their way to the departure lounge at the airport early.

In contrast, I expected the Copper Bullets to strike precise and true and the Foxes to bite with malicious intent. To those I misjudged I now offer my profuse apology and, while I continue to wish them well, I still scratch my head and continue to wonder as to why there is such dominance.

It can’t be the water. Mineral and bacteria count does not make any difference when compared to other regions. Even though West Africans arguably eat the continent’s hottest food, as it is home to the original African bird’s eye pepper, I don’t think it’s that either.

I say this because the Capsicum frutescens, or piri piri as it is called locally, has long wandered out of the area and is grown and eaten throughout Africa. So, for the record, is the world’s hottest pepper - the “Bhut Jolokia Ghost” - that can now be bought dried in specialty stores all over most of the continent.

So toss Scoville ratings and heat out of the window because, if this was indeed the magic dust for success on the pitch, football associations would fly the peppers in by the ton and spray it on their players like sun lotion.

Nor can it be size. The Congolese front line looked like they could play American Football and Zambia actually looked more West African than Nigeria herself. Only Emenike could match Stopilla physically and the defensive Godzilla still looked down on him with inches to spare.

Could it be that the local professional leagues, working in harmony with football developmental programmes sponsored by both Caf and Fifa, have slowly but surely given that region the edge we are now seeing?

South Africa’s Danny Jordan, whom I consider to be one of Africa’s sharpest knives when it comes to football, seems to partially agree. “There is a confidence and ever growing belief, regardless of personnel and tactics, that they are just as good as the perennial powerhouses,” he said.

So agrees the IFFHS, the Germany-based organisation founded in 1984 to chronicle the history and records of association football, which has for long suggested that this is just the case. The world ranking for the strongest national leagues has been determined annually by the IFFHS since 1991 on the basis of all national (championship, FA Cup) and (inter)continental (confederations & Fifa club competitions) results of the clubs.

In other words, ranking has nothing to do with the quality of jerseys, stadia, latest boots or pretty websites. It has to do with how deep and well local teams go when they compete against teams from other leagues.

Let’s examine their findings. The big guns from West Africa have their leagues in 2012 ranked as follows in Africa. Mali is third, Nigeria is fifth, Ghana is sixth and the Ivory Coast is 10th. Meanwhile, in comparison, the Absa Premier League is ranked at 12 and Zambia’s Super League one ahead at 11.

Now while I wait for a moment for this to sink in, I’ll quickly point out that only the Black Leopards impressed in a Caf competition last year from the South. As for Zambia, there would be no TP Mazembe without them.

I must also be fair to say that the IFFHS ranks Tunisia as the continent’s top league. Since Arab teams other than Egypt (and Morocco once) , turn into pumpkins when they are not hosts, we can strike them from our calculations.

So at the end of the day it seems home is the difference and how we fare there will always shape our fortunes outside. Thank God we don’t have to wait too long to challenge the IFFHS findings or hypothesis. South Africa faces Mali tomorrow and will either give credence to the musings from Germany or relegate it to total nonsense and sheer luck.

May the best team win.

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