Gary Al-Smith examines the progress of West African football over the last quarter-century and discovers the reasons for its dominance of the continental game, while producing the continent’s best results in FIFA competitions.
In the late 1990s, El Meirreikh’s Haytham Tambal was tipped to be the next George Weah. On becoming too hot for Sudan, Orlando Pirates of South Africa grabbed him.
But Tambal left the Johannesburg club, at the end of the 2006 season, for a simple reason – at home, his record as the national team’s top goal-scorer made him a megastar. But in South Africa? He was just one of the guys.
The Sudanese players’ strong social bond with their homeland makes a transition to the bigger leagues of Africa and Europe a step too far in their career trajectories.
“The social linkages are so strong that they (Sudanese players) feel isolated any time they go out [of the country, to begin a club career outside],” said Dr Kamal Shaddad, who was President of the Sudan FA in 2010.
But this “bonding” is not peculiar to Sudan alone. Players in the Eastern, Northern and Southern African regions have been typically shy of exploring other territories.
Karl Tufuor, an African football specialist, puts it down to more comfortable conditions in these parts.
“Poverty is all over Africa, but you find that the West African version pushes their players out of the system due to desperation. Elsewhere across the continent, leagues are generally more organised and payment schemes are better.”
Regardless of whether this is true or not, what is without doubt is that West African players are more exposed to top-level football than their regional peers, producing an incredibly culturally diverse and savvy crop of players.
Blending traditional, natural-born skill with the technical knowledge acquired from European club football’s top technicians has given them the competitive edge.
West Africa has fielded more starting elevens with foreign-based players than any other region, with their hybrid style making them extremely difficult opponents to contend with. Africa’s best performances in the World Cup have consisted of Ghana’s quarter-final finish at the last World Cup, Senegal’s previous quarter-final showing in Korea/Japan 2002 and that of four-time African champions Cameroon, the first African team to reach the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.
Though geographically in central Africa, the Cameroonians share similar, if not identical, societal circumstances with their West African neighbours.
But there are glaring exceptions to the rule, especially among teams that have dominated the Africa Cup of Nations with locally-based players – like Egypt did at the 2006, 2008 and 2010 editions and Zambia’s unexpected win, over star-studded Côte d’Ivoire, at this year’s tournament in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.
Since the 1960s, West Africa has won the trophy seven times – Ghana on four occasions (1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982), Nigeria on two (1980 and 1994) and Côte d’Ivoire once (1992).
Southern Africa has won only twice – with South Africa in 1996 and Zambia (2012), while East Africa is the only region that has never won the tournament in recent times. Only Uganda’s Cranes came close, reaching the 1978 final.
While Central Africa have four-time champions Cameroon, DR Congo and Congo Brazzaville on their honours list, only the North Africans rival, if not better, the dominance of West Africa, courtesy of Egypt’s unequalled record of Nations Cup wins – seven in total since 1957 but five since they staged the 1986 tournament, on home soil.
Algeria won the tournament in 1990 and Tunisia in 2004. But Morocco has the distinction of being the first North African nation, after Egypt, to win the trophy in 1976.
Here’s another fact that puts things into clearer perspective – since the 1986 Nations Cup, 24 out of the 42 teams that have finished in the top three have been from West Africa.
And, with the exception of 1996 and 1998, every Nations Cup in the last quarter-century has had a West African side in the top three.
Nations colonised by France have accounted for the bulk of the African player exodus, owing to its policy of “assimilation” – an idea of expanding French culture to the colonies, whose peoples were considered French citizens, as long as the culture and customs were adopted.
Colonialism has also played a role in West Africa’s dominance. This ethos made the departure of talented Africans into Le Championnat fairly easy, which consequently left a strong French imprint on the playing style of national teams from the continent’s Francophone ranks.
And the influence of agents cannot be dismissed either. West African players have been their focal point of interest when organising European transfers. But this has not happened in a vacuum, as Eric Delali Senaye, a player agent who has dealt with talent continent-wide, explains.
“It is a question of motivation. Southern African players are not motivated to get exposure in Europe because they are paid well, relatively. In South Africa, players’ salaries are similar to those in Scandinavia and even some Portuguese teams.”
With West African clubs generally funded by private individuals, who rely on international transfers sales to keep their clubs afloat, the exodus is constant, Senaye says, “and that’s not the case with Southern Africa, where private investment in football is big and professionalism is quite high.”
“East Africa has still not seen the explosion of football on the scale of other regions and it will take some time before they get a lot of talent in top clubs,” Senaye opines.
But Zambia’s recent triumph in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea should spur Africa’s other regions to realise that West Africa’s traditional dominance in international competitions is just that – traditional – and not set in stone.