It could be assumed, that the majority of those living outside of central Africa would name Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s heavyweight title fight as the most significant sports news to emanate from Zaire in 1974. The now legendary bout, mostly referred to as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ was held in Kinshasa in October of that year, resulting in Ali’s reinstatement as world champion following an eighth round knockout.
But for those actually living in the capital, and the rest of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1974 is meaningful for an altogether different sporting occasion. That summer, Zaire became the first team from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for the World Cup, but their players and fans recall the tournament in West Germany with mixed feelings, despite the achievement of being the first black African representatives on global football’s grandest stage. “I was very proud, and still am, to have represented Black and Central Africa at the World Cup,” says former defender, Mwepu Ilunga. “But we had the erroneous belief that we would be returning from the World Cup as millionaires. We got back home without a penny in our pockets. Look at me now, I’m living like a tramp,” an incensed Ilunga told BBC Sport.
The retired right full-back remains bitter about several aspects of the ‘Leopards’’ campaign, most notably the fact that Zairean officials are alleged to have pocketed his and his team-mates’ wages for the tournament, something Ilunga would only discover mid-way through the group stages. The opening game saw Zaire defeated 2-0 by Scotland, but Ilunga claims that the players were told that they wouldn’t be paid at all, prior to the next match against Yugoslavia. “Before the Yugoslavia match we learnt that we were not going to be paid, so we refused to play,” claims the defender, who has since become a cult footballing icon for running out of the defensive wall to kick a Brazilian free-kick away in Zaire’s final first-round fixture. Unfortunately, the Leopards were thrashed 9-0 by Yugoslavia, having been persuaded at the last moment to attend the encounter, a result that did immense damage to the image of African football.
Following the humiliating defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s leader at the time, intervened directly in the team’s affairs. “After the match, he sent his presidential guards to threaten us,” remembers Ilunga. “They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 4-0 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.” The unforgivable treatment of Zaire’s players at the World Cup was in stark contrast to the way they had been received following qualification, when Mobutu is said to have gifted each team member a car and a house. “Mobutu’s generals were so jealous of the gifts we were given that he had to buy them a car each, to keep them quiet,” Ilunga said. In their last game, Zaire lost 3-nil to Brazil, which allowed the team to return home free from the fear of retribution, but Africa’s first World Cup showing saw the Leopards record an unenviable statistic of conceding 14 goals without scoring a single one.
Fast forward almost exactly 36 years and 120 minutes, and Africa’s sixth and longest-surviving representative at the 2010 edition of FIFA’s esteemed international tournament are simply a 12-yard spot-kick from reaching the semi-final stage, a watershed moment in the continent’s history. By this point, the global audience had thrown their full support behind Ghana’s ‘Black Stars’ following Luis Suarez’s deplorable goal-line hand-ball, which prevented the West Africans’ justified progression. Their talisman, Asamoah Gyan, who had scored in three of the previous four games, struck the cross-bar with the game’s final kick, and despite redeeming himself by converting in the subsequent penalty-shootout, Ghana were eliminated following a 4-2 reverse.
The country’s desolate onlookers were at least able to assess their players’ performances with a considerable element of pride, despite Ghana just failing to erode the semi-final barrier which no African side has yet been able to. But what are the factors which have contributed to the vastly altered assessment of African national teams? Previously, one or two representatives at international level would be perceived, by the European media at least, as negligible whipping-boys, with less than technically-adept playing staff. This is clearly no longer a widely-held view, evidenced by the number of African players not only competing in Europe at club level, but also at the very highest echelons of European competition.
It is worth mentioning that Africa’s footballing development coincided with the continent’s increased representation at World Cups. It wasn’t until the 1998 tournament in France, when the competitions’ format was adjusted to include eight more nations totaling 32 teams, that Africa was granted as many as five positions in the group phase. Of those five, only Nigeria progressed to the knockout stages where they were emphatically beaten 4-1 by Denmark, but one particular feature of the ‘Super Eagles’’ composition may explain the relative success enjoyed by several African countries since the 1998 World Cup. Although FIFA’s casual regulations pertaining to nationality requirements in international football allowed nine countries to benefit from foreign management in 1998, Nigeria’s performance under the stewardship of Serbian coach, Bora Milutinovic, encouraged future African World Cup contestants to acquire overseas direction.
The succeeding tournament hosted by Korea and Japan was remembered as much for Senegal’s impressive maiden appearance at a World Cup as for Ronaldo’s relentless form, as Frenchman, Bruno Metsu, led the ‘Lions of Teranga’ to the quarter-finals and a heroes welcome in the capital, Dakar, upon their post-elimination arrival. The acceleration of this trend reached a potentially damaging juncture last summer, when five out of Africa’s six attending nations elected foreign supervision prior to the continent’s first hosting of a World Cup in South Africa. Algeria were the only African representative with a home-grown head coach, – Rabah Saadane – but Nigeria’s conduct in releasing manager, Shaibu Amodu, three months before the tournament highlights a much broader concern within African football. “A lot of people [in Africa] still have the mentality that the European knows more,” said Thomas Mlambo, a distinguished television presenter and analyst on the South Africa-based sports network, SuperSport. The fact that Amodu was sacked following not only the remarkable achievement in qualifying Nigeria for the World Cup, but also in leading them to a third placed finish at the African Cup of Nations last year, emphasizes this confusing ‘mentality’ which inspired the Nigerian Football Federation to replace the 52 year-old with Lars Lagerback, who was only available to take the helm having failed to guide Sweden to the finals tournament.
Many will have questioned the decision to remove a coach who had spent two years conditioning the team, and succeeded in meeting his short-term objectives, with a manager who had recently failed to accomplish a similar target and with almost no knowledge of the country’s footballing traditions and philosophy. Amodu was actually sacked in a replica scenario prior to the 2002 World Cup and is unlikely to accept a fifth stint as Nigerian head coach should the opportunity arise. An Ivory Coast fan described the unusual racial barrier most African coaches face, and perhaps goes some way to explaining the seemingly irrational choices many African football federations have made recently: “The players have more respect for whites,” says Bienvenue Kehedi, a 26 year-old student in Abidjan. “An Ivorian can’t assert their will against the players because he tries to keep on the side of all the players and is scared of taking tough decisions.” Although European leadership may have assisted a few African nations in achieving their World Cup aspirations before last summer, the continent’s relatively poor showing at the 2010 tournament was interpreted by many as a sign of African football’s static development based on the dependence on foreign coaches.
The 1995 World, European and African Player of the Year, and Liberian legend, George Weah, has claimed that overseas influences are only serving to harm the progression of the sport in Africa. “In 1999, I addressed international coaches at FIFA and I said it; they come to Africa to coach but they are not the right people for the African team because they are not developing our players, they are just making the money, come for vacation and that’s it,” the former AC Milan forward stated. Weah implied that the Ivory Coast’s, Cameroon’s, Algeria’s, Nigeria’s and hosts South Africa’s premature elimination should act as a wake-up call to provoke a change to the continent’s process of pursuing European management. “The European coaches are not the best for Africa. Some agree with me, some they don’t. Look at the statistics of the World Cup, since Africa started hiring European coaches, only the Africans coaches have done well,” Weah concluded.
The three-time African Player of the Year (1989, 1994 and 1995) may be right in some respects, but the continual appointment of foreign coaches embodies a natural corollary to African players’ increased presence in the European leagues. The employment of European coaches makes sense considering a large number of modern African national teams consist of mainly European-based players, evinced by a Sven Goran-Eriksson selected Ivory Coast squad containing just one Ivorian-based player out of 23 – the third-choice goalkeeper. There is certainly a growing feeling amongst many Africans that a change in organizational structure at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is required to assist the development of the presently insufficient, and future, African coaches. With a campaign being led by Weah, arguably the continent’s most recognized footballing and political exemplar, it is not inconceivable to imagine prospective World Cups being contested by African nations guided by African managers. “We have to believe in ourselves, believe in our people. Give them the support to be trained and to develop our teams,” pleads Weah. “The CAF needs to wake-up, we need an institution for coaching in Africa. Our people don’t need to go to Europe, they need to stay in Africa and train.” Weah is certainly fighting a valid cause, because in spite of Africa’s varying successes under foreign managers, it would be catastrophic to witness a repeat of Ghana’s Serbian coach, Milovan Rajevac’s, inexcusable despair following the Black Stars’ 1-0 victory over Serbia in last years’ tournament. Africa’s sudden and meteoric ascension to the top of European football’s consciousness must not halt now, and with a burgeoning pool of talent swarming every region on the continent, it is time for the national federations to cultivate the hidden coaching talent to avoid future disappointment, and maintain the extraordinary progression.
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