In the build-up to Euro 2012, a couple of friends and I recently attended an u/20 international football tournament in Cape Town. We watched two matches – South Africa vs Ghana and Nigeria vs Argentina. On display were some of the best future football talent: look out for future star Snethemba Ngidi, pictured, the diminutive South African central attacking midfielder currently signed at SuperSport United, who won plaudits – even from the Argentinian coach – for his distribution and attacking skills; he also seems to enjoy it. But, as the results over the last week have shown, an all too familiar trend for African countries appear: the African teams struggled to compete against their Latin American, European and Asian rivals, in this case Brazil, Argentina and Japan (there are no European countries participating in the tournament). An African country has never reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup. It has never won the FIFA Confederations Cup. Only once in the eighteen times the event has been staged has an African country – Ghana in 2009, beating Brazil on penalties – won the u/20 FIFA World Cup.
What are the reasons for this poor performance? It’s not that Africa doesn’t produce exceptional football players. Didier Drogba’s exceptional performances for Chelsea, showcased in the final of the Champions League a few weeks ago, is a case in point. Income per capita is certainly important: at the most basic level, it allows for better diets which reduces the stunting of children; at a broader level, it results in higher government revenues which pays for better schools, training facilities, coaches, administrative structures and high-performance centres. Some would argue that genetics is important: Southern Africans are generally shorter than West Africans. But then again, Zambia beat Ivory Coast in the final of the African Cup of Nations earlier this year. Also, Barcelona doesn’t seem to care too much about height. In fact, one could argue that the genetic diversities of African countries should actually act as an advantage in team selection.
I would argue that the small size of most African countries – the effects of low population density and haphazard colonial borders – is another important explanation for Africa’s inability to compete. We have exceptional footballers, but they are dispersed over the continent, and only once in a generation does one African country have a large pool of exceptional players at their disposal – perhaps Ivory Coast over the last few years. So here’s my suggestion: instead of having eight countries compete in the Confederations Cup, why not have six continental regions compete: Africa, South America, North and Central America, Northern Europe (including Russia), Southern Europe, and a combined team for Asia (South and East) and Oceania. An African team of Drogba, Gervinho, Yaya and Kolo Touré (Ivory Coast), Adebayor (Togo), Demba Ba (Senegal), André Ayew, Kevin-Prince Boatong and Michael Essien (Ghana), Steven Pienaar (South Africa), Seydou Keita (Mali), Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song (Cameroon), Adel Taarabt (Morocco) and Stéphane Sessègnon (Benin) sounds devastating. (And just imagine Messi, Tevez, and Higuain (all Argentina), and Kaka, Hulk and Neymar (all Brazil) and perhaps Luiz Suarez (Uruguay) in the same line-up.) This will also give exposure to those brilliant players that originate from small countries that are unlikely to ever compete at the highest international stage (this is also true for players of small, European countries; imagine Christiano Ronaldo had been born in Bosnia and Herzegovina).
I’m pretty sure such a tournament will create immense excitement – and severe headaches for whomever has to coach the respective teams. It will also draw spectators from a broader pool of just the current participating countries. And who would not want to travel to see the best African players take on the best of Europe, Asia and America?
The Confederations Cup in its current format is dead. Bring on the Continents Cup!