2014 World Cup: Analysing the conflicting fortunes of Africa's coaches
This feature analyses the conflicting fortunes of Africa’s World Cup managers during the ongoing tournament in Brazil.
Three teams arguably underachieved in Brazil. Algeria, who came so close to upsetting Germany, overachieved, while the jury remains out for Nigeria. The Super Eagles ended a 16-year absence from the knockout stages, but still failed to amount to the sum of their parts—or, at least, their potential.
In this editorial, we focus on the men in charge of Africa’s five World Cup nations, considering how they prepared for the tournament, how the decisions they made during the competition affected their sides (for better or worse) and what the future holds.
A collection of encouraging pre-tournament results, not least a 2-2 draw with Germany, gave Cameroon belief that they could escape from Group A and suggested that Volker Finke had finally found answers to the Indomitable Lions’ imbalances.
Unfortunately, the deficiencies of a troubled collective became vividly apparent as the tournament wore on. The implosion against Croatia, for example, will surely go down in history as one of the ugliest episodes in Africa’s history of participation at the World Cup.
It’s hard to know exactly how much to blame Finke for this spectacle. The German wasn’t slow to criticise his players, and considering the convoluted relationship/politics of power between Samuel Eto’o and the federation, as well as the rumours of match-fixing, the manager—like the rest of us—begins to look like little more than a puzzled observer.
What can be questioned, however, is his decision to start domestic-based right-back Cedric Djeugoue in the side’s opening game against Mexico. Admittedly, the 21-year-old had looked competent in the warm-up games, but to throw such an inexperienced player (one who was playing in the Chad Premier League two years ago) into such a high-profile, intense contest was a massive gamble, and one that was always unlikely to come off.
As it was, the Mexicans identified this area of weakness, swarmed over the Indomitable Lions, pushed the wingers back and instantly took the initiative in the match.
What Allan Nyom, the squad’s other right-back, must have thought as he watched on is anyone’s guess.
The Ivory Coast, along with Ghana and Nigeria, were guilty of a lack of game management in Brazil. That is to say, that they failed to demonstrate pragmatism or prudence when the situation called for it.
For the Elephants, this reality was best encapsulated in the dying moments against Greece.
With the second round within their grasp, the west Africans continued to pile men forward. The defence, finding themselves under pressure, struggled to cope with Greece’s limited attackers, the European side won and converted a penalty and the dream was once again over for the Ivorians.
Lamouchi was a dubious, controversial appointment from day one, specifically because he had no previous coaching experience prior to taking the Elephants job.
The urbane former France international had a decent, but not extraordinary pedigree but failed to make the most of the dying, yet undeniably talented embers of the Golden Generation.
It was little surprise that the manager stepped down after the tournament. Unless a wise appointment is made, the Elephants risk frittering away the Indian summer of this fine group of players.
In principle, Nigeria should have headed into this summer’s World Cup with the best chance of making an impact. They had received a favourable draw, and as African Champions, they were enjoying the confidence that comes with success born from Stephen Keshi’s cajoling influence and tactical nous as manager.
Unfortunately, things began to unravel before the tournament. The Big Boss must take at least some of the blame for the outworking of events, particularly after he selected a fairly bewildering squad of 23, despite the myriad options available to the Super Eagles.
Once again, as was the case at the 2013 Cup of Nations, things came together for Nigeria at a few pertinent moments and the west Africans managed to qualify for the second round.
The underwhelming showing against Iran, however, cast doubt over the manager’s tactical prowess, while he made a rod for his own back by selecting a limited squad.
Shola Ameobi, Uche Nwofor and Reuben Gabriel were all introduced by the manager at crucial times in games when an impact substitution was required. Would the likes of Ike Uche, Victor Obinna or Nosa Igiebor not have offered so much more?
Keshi has not been slow to express his discontent with the Nigerian Football Federation and certain portions of the fanbase since the World Cup, per The Cable, via Kick Off Nigeria. A prosperous relationship looks to be coming to an unhappy end.
The sensible money now would be on Keshi moving to take the South Africa job, with a new man charged with continuing his good work in Calabar.
Two key decisions, two intertwined issues, were at the forefront of Ghana’s pre-tournament preparations.
First of all, how would Kwesi Appiah reintegrate the returning stars—Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, the Ayew brothers—after they, as a group, ended their respective international exiles?
The second was how the manager would employ Kwadwo Asamoah. The Juventus man is Ghana’s best player and a double Serie A winner in Italy, but he has too often found himself on the peripheries of the team, plonked at left-back to accommodate other, less versatile players.
Arguably, Appiah failed on both counts.
Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari were expelled from the team due to unacceptable behaviour, while the team were widely criticised for their role in the well-publicised bonus scandal. The revelations and acrimony that have followed the team out of Brazil have painted a picture of a disparate collective, each individual playing for himself and more focused on money than national pride.
While this may be far from the truth, it doesn’t obscure the impression that Kwesi Appiah, like a beleaguered schoolteacher on a trip, failed to keep his charges under control and focused on the side’s objectives.
Asamoah starred at left-back, as expected, but he remains one of the key protagonists in a summer of “what might have beens” for Africa.
Since the tournament and despite the Black Stars’ failings, Appiah has been awarded an improved contract. The coach described himself as “fortunate” to have the Ghana job, but many fans would suggest that he is even more fortunate to have been allowed to remain at the helm beyond Brazil.
While the west Africans do not require the kind of overhaul that other nations do, the climate of player power must be stamped out and Appiah must attempt to place the focus back on the team.
Stephen Keshi’s 2013 Cup of Nations winners provide the perfect template for this; the Big Boss axed Nigeria’s big names and overachievers and put the emphasis back on the collective. It is an example that Appiah would do well to follow.
Finally, we come to Vahid Halilhodzic.
The Bosnian coach has endured a troubled few years as Algeria manager. He was rightly put under pressure following an unimpressive 2013 Cup of Nations display, and at one point, he looked exceptionally close to losing his job.
Within this context, Algeria’s impotent showing at the 2010 World Cup and their hapless defensive display against Burkina Faso in the CAF 2014 World Cup Qualification first leg, Halilhodzic deserves immense credit.
The manager ticked almost all of the boxes and ought to be held up as an example for other coaches taking control of sides with Algeria’s status and resources.
The boss cultivated a tight-knit squad that was rife with options, and this shone through both in the players’ confidence and their unity.
He also made big, bold decisions, such as dropping Adlene Guedioura for 19-year-old Nabil Bentaleb ahead of the tournament. The Tottenham Hotspur man, who only made his debut in March, brought smooth passing ability and decent technical skills to the midfield—he compensated for an absence elsewhere.
Possibly the best word to outline why Halilhodzic succeeded is “balance.”
There was a balance within the character of the camp, balance in the tactics and balance in the selection decisions. Halilhodzic is a dramatic personality, but he espoused an admirable lack of sentimentality and sober pragmatism in Brazil.
It is a shame that both Algeria and the African game are losing him.