Despite remaining only a minority in European football, African footballers have impacted the game in our continent in a way which exceeds merely providing great individual talents.
Footballers such as George Weah and Tony Yeboah and, more recently, Yaya Toure and Samuel Eto’o have lit up the European game with astonishing ability; however, the style of play cultivated in Africa, visible both in our leagues and on the international stage, has added much more to the game. The power, directness and, most important of all, competitiveness of countries such as Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire has added an extra dimension to the World Cup that could not be found several decades ago, when perhaps the most vivid memory of African football is the poor showing of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Perhaps this image is most characterised by four-time African Football of the Year Yaya Toure, the powerful and athletic midfield destroyer of Manchester City.
It is a supposed stereotype that I have used here that has been taken issue with as a restrain on the development of African football. The European obsession with power and physique has resulted in more skilful, ‘flair’ African footballers being pushed out in favour of their more physical counterparts. Ex-Manchester United scout Tom Vernon named this “the Papa Bouba Diop template”.
It has been argued that in searching for players to fulfil this template, scouts are ignoring potential footballers with other valuable skills. Creative players such as Steven Pienaar and the legendary Jay-Jay Okocha are seeming to mark an end of an era until scouts appreciate that Africa is a hotbed for footballing talent of any description, not just powerhouse footballers.
So what is being done to change this view of a prototype African footballer and, more generally, how is the latent footballing talent in Africa being exploited and utilised? The scheme that immediately jumps to mind is the international soccer school, held by many major European clubs, including England’s Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City. Manchester City’s South Africa program pledges to deliver coaching to local children, teaching them the same techniques and philosophies that are used by the first team of the 2013-14 Premier League champions.
All three of the aforementioned teams run programs of some description in South Africa, and Liverpool also has an Egypt-based soccer school; but that is the current limit. FIFA have gone much further, as should be their remit, using the success of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to aid the footballing development of not only the tournament hosts, but the whole of the continent of Africa.
Leading up to the World Cup, FIFA launched the “Win in Africa with Africa” development project, equipping fifty-two countries on the continent with a FIFA recommended football turf, a program with a budget of over thirty-nine million US dollars. The main objective is a simple one; to allow more footballers in Africa to play on high-quality pitches. FIFA has declared that the project “has set solid foundations for the continuous development of football”.
A further program developed by FIFA in conjunction with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is the aptly-named “Goal” project, providing funding and support to suitable projects in Africa, with 163 launched or completed thus far. The stated aim of Sepp Blatter upon launching “Goal” was to create a ‘House of Football’ for each member association worldwide, including infrastructure such as technical centres and football pitches. A specific example of success for “Goal” can be found in Rwanda, where a youth talent academy was fully financed to prepare the U17 and U20 teams.
In conjunction with Adidas, 80,000 footballs have been sent to Africa since 2003, at a cost of over two million US dollars, to facilitate the playing of football in the continent. Providing the equipment, however, is merely half of the job; an education about the game is also necessary. To this end, FIFA run courses in the areas of coaching, refereeing, futsal and women’s football, along with administrative and medical courses. An ongoing project, 494 courses were held in Africa between 2006 and 2012.
Crucial to these development programs, whilst the simple humanitarian benefit is extremely laudable, is to go on to optimise the performance of African football – which is where the FIFA Performance Programme comes in. Its stated aims are these: “To allow FIFA’s member associations to reach their maximum potential both on and off the pitch”, and “to improve the quality of modern football and how the game is managed by providing member associations with first-class expertise, solutions and tailor-made services”; admirable goals that are turning an ever-increasing potential into an ever-improving performance. The program has a budget of thirty-eight million US dollars and is in the process of implementing performance centres throughout Africa, with eleven completed by 2011.
In total, FIFA have spent over five hundred million US dollars on developing African football, a figure that will continue to rise as projects continue and expand.
In addition to FIFA’s work in Africa, there are certain individually-ran projects around the world which are helping to develop an African and international football community. One of these is the Barcelona Football Festival, held in May this year, a youth tournament open to teams all around the world who receive the opportunity to play in a high-quality, competitive competition in Santa Susanna in Barcelona. Including a trip to the Camp Nou and refereeing by internationally-qualified officials, this festival sees an incredible opportunity for youngsters around the world to have a taste of the glamour of international football competition.
ASPIRE Qatar run a major football program aimed at developing footballers aged between six and eleven years of age, using Football Talent Centres throughout the capital city, Doha; this reaches Africa in the form of ‘ASPIRE Football Dreams’, a humanitarian project designed to give thirteen year-old children in many developing countries the opportunity to earn a prestigious football and academic scholarship. With over three and a half million participants since its foundation in 2005, Dreams offers a holistic development scheme for the chosen youngsters which entails private school education, coaching, international friendly matches, and social and medical support – and crucially the chance to pursue a career in international football.
It describes itself as “The Perfect Bridge to Professional Football”; an elaborate selection process follows. First, a series of eleven v eleven games determines the fifty brightest talents in each nation, as chosen by international scouts. The selected footballers are then hosted for a week in the capital city of their nation whilst under the scrutiny of ASPIRE scouts, before only the very best players are transported to the ASPIRE academy in Qatar for three weeks, with the best twenty players worldwide being awarded scholarships – thus, indeed providing a tremendous opportunity to enter professional football.
This project also includes the humanitarian project ‘Football Combating Malaria’, which is twinned with the Lionel Messi Foundation, and simply aims to prevent the spread of the disease in Africa.
African football has shot to prominence in the past two decades; these schemes, driven forward by the International Federation of Association Football, suggest that the rise can only continue.
Article contributed by Alex Beck.