Africans must not become rare in Europe
When Rabah Madjer inspired Porto into an unlikely come-back by scoring a cheeky back heel and setting up the winner in the 1987 Champions Cup victory over Bayern Munich it was not trumpeted all over Africa.
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Back in those days, when there was not so much European football on African TV screens, it was the keen students of the sport at the time who took note. His exploits also did not suddenly open up a rush to buy players from the continent.
Since the conversion of the revamped Champions Cup into the Uefa Champions League in 1993, only the finals of ’97, ’98, 2002, 2003 and 2007 had no African player in the match-day squads. Samuel Eto’o has won three on his own! Most top European clubs have relied on the services of African players in their quest for honours and with good reasons too.
The outgoing European champions, Chelsea, won the title in Munich with John Mikel Obi, Solomon Kalou and Didier Drogba on the pitch. It can be argued, forcefully, that without the presence of Drogba the West London club might not have won the competition. England used to be a graveyard of African players, where it seemed that the pace of the game, the culture, or perhaps the impatience of the managers, never got the best out African players. That seems to have changed.
Demba Ba’s arrival in England was fraught with many obstacles as Stoke said he had failed a medical and did not sign him. West Ham, fighting relegation, took him on. He scored as many goals as he could in a struggling side but did not get to keep them up.
Newcastle stepped in and took him up north where he just continued scoring. He was later joined by countryman Papiss Cisse in January of this year from the Bundesliga. Following a disastrous Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, both players returned to Newcastle and Cisse took off like a house on fire. He got all sorts of goals as Newcastle finished in a creditable fifth position.
Currently, Ba is the one scoring the goals again while Cisse is waiting his turn. Behind them, Cheikh Tiote of the Ivory Coast holds the fort in the centre of midfield with his tenacious play and simple passing to keep the game flowing. Nigerians Shola and Sammy Ameobi are very good back-ups in a Newcastle side battling on two (home and European) fronts.
Manager Roberto Mancini believes that his team’s fortunes are tied to the fitness of skipper Vincent Kompany and the Ivorian Yaya Toure. Yaya is so important to the tactical plans of City that one could feel the sense of foreboding at the Etihad on his departure during the Manchester derby. In winning the title, Toure’s drive from midfield was the essential final element as the blue half of Manchester wrestled the title away from the grip the Red side had by Easter. Mancini has been quoted as saying that he “will have a word with the Toure brothers with regards to their participation at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations” .
With Didier Drogba now departed, when skipper John Terry and Frank Lampard are out injured, it is amazing to note that John Obi Mikel is the longest serving outfield player after Ashley Cole. The Nigerian joined in controversial circumstances from Starvenger via Man United and has become a main stay in a team whose style and shape have barely altered since the days of Jose Mourinho.
Mikel played pivotal roles in the defensive performances that led to winning the Champions League. His greatest challenge now is if he can adapt to a more attacking Chelsea formation that requires more offensive movement from midfielders. He has had a 2012 to cherish in any case.
In Italy, Asamoah Kwadoh has been excellent at Juventus in his new wing-back role. His play is so important to the Serie A champions and league leaders in their 3-5-2 formation. It speaks volumes of this Ghanaian’s football intelligence that he has made such a smooth transition from his play making duties at Udinese to being a wing-back of such high quality.
Many of those who watched him as Ghana won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009 and his displays for the national team never would have pictured him in this his role at Juventus. The hope will be that he steers clear of injuries and maintains his form.
His compatriot and national teammate Andre Ayew of Olympique Marseille is another player who never seems to be off form. He already has three goals for the 2010 French champions where he plays alongside his younger brother, striker Jordan, who has scored one goal more. These two lads must be sources of great pride for their dad Abedi “Pele” Ayew, who was also a Marseille great in his own right.
Andre might not have the silky touches that his dad had but, as well as being left footed, he has an engine, grit, determination and a will to win that is so transparent just by watching him. Olympic Marseille’s run in the Champions League last season showed him at his determined best even if the team was strangely subdued in the emphatic aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinal. No one would accuse Andre of ever being subdued in a match.
The French league has always been the haven of African footballers, especially those of the Franco-phone backgrounds and that trend does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.
In the German Bundesliga, a week before the winter break, three clubs in the top six had African players : Franfurt’s Constant Djakpa of Ivory Coast, Karim Matmour of Algeria and the Cameroonian Dorge Kouemaha; Stuttgart with Arthur Boka of the Ivory Coast and the Guinean Ibrahima Traore while Schalke’s Joel Matip of Cameroon is fairly more regular this season than Nigerian Chinedu Obasi, who has only seen 89 minutes of action all season.
Like everything in life there are cycles. There was a time when African players were the in fashion because of the style of play many teams wanted to use. A new style is also now being used where smaller footballers – physically, but technically giants – have come back in vogue. The African player is technically sound naturally on account of the bad pitches they have grown up on back home so there is no danger that they might not be able to cope with these new styles and systems in Europe.
However, the biggest obstacle for the African player is the continental tournament and therefore the people who run football in Africa. Many European club coaches/managers are wary of signing African footballers only to have them go off for four weeks in January and February when the European season starts to sizzle.
A lot of the time these players return from these tournaments in poor physical conditions and take a bit more time to adapt to the cold European weather after the warm African climate.
How difficult is it for the executives of Caf to make the tournament a summer tournament? Even South America have turned theirs into such. Why are the African football administrators stuck in the dark ages?
The excuse of European summer being the African rain season does not wash at all. This year it rained torrentially during the Gabon tournament and it continued. It should go to the summer months and, while we are there, make it every four years too. Give the tournament the respect it deserves and help make African footballers marketable again.
As 2012 ended with three African footballers winning Europe’s premier club competition it is important that we don’t go back to the time when African players at top European clubs were a rarity.