Football

Football made in Afrique

Didier Drogba
Didier Drogba Reuters

"Football isn't a matter of life or death, it's much more important than that." If only Bill Shankly had uttered this phrase, how much happier we'd all be. The legendary Liverpool manager's actual remark on a TV show in 1981 was much more prosaic. He told the interviewer: "Someone said: 'Football is more important than life and death to you' and I said: 'Listen, it's more important than that'.”

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Fast-forward 30-odd years, and Shankly's riposte still resounds. There's money galore in the game, with billions spent on staging prestigious tournaments. It's a million miles away from the world inhabited by Shanks and the rest of his brains trust in the Anfield Boot Room.

At the last African Cup of Nations in Angola, four new stadiums were erected, roads were built and the authorities threw in a couple of new airports, in the capital, Luanda, and in the regional city of Lubango.

They forgot, though, to revamp the attitudes towards service.

Q+A: Joachim Barbier

It's this kind of divergence that Joachim Barbier and Antoine Derouet survey in their new book Football Made in Afrique.

Barbier has travelled extensively in Africa and considers the quirks of the continent with wry relish. The current crop of stars, such as the reigning African Footballer of the Year Didier Drogba, the Cameroon skipper Samuel Eto and Ghana midfielder Michael Essien are immense figures in their own lands as well as on foreign playing fields.

They're held up as role models. But this isn't what drove them when they were practising their reverse passes and sliding tackles.

Through no fault of their own, their success in Europe isn't helping education back home.

The book recounts the story of how it became difficult to motivate youngsters after Senegal's march to the last eight of the 2002 World Cup. The team was held up as national heroes: true, the players had pulled off some spectacular results, not least beating France in the group stages. But football is not real life.

And the pernicious flip side of that hysteria can be found in French and Belgian cities where duped African youngsters while away their days after being financially fleeced by false agents promising to make them into the next Eto.

How to stop such exploitation? Difficult, because the dream is so fervent and success rarely comes without risk.

Perhaps football academies like the ones set up by the French former footballer Jean Marc Guillou hold the answer. His centres have been established in Mali, Egypt and Ghana.

Guillou had the misfortune of being a gifted midfielder in a middling national team of the mid- to late-1970s. A few years later he would have been in with Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez - le carré magique.

Now he's imparting his vision to youngsters with talent, and they receive an education to boot. But, as Barbier muses, where's the fairness of a decent schooling, because you can play football? It isn't right.

But without adjacent moralising, Football Made in Afrique makes it plain that there's collateral damage.

Since there are no tectonic shifts in the offing, what is the future for the (educated) youngsters emerging from Guillou's academies as well as the others set up around the continent? They'll enter a local market place of average quality.

No one with potential will want to stay, firstly because the standards aren't that high, and secondly because the cash is elsewhere.

But the talented African has to tack on ambition. He has an odyssey before reaching European El Dorado.

Before Drogba hit the 100,000 euro a month goldmine of Chelsea 2010, he was at Marseille, Guingamp, Le Mans and Levallois.

Ivorian José Mourinho paid 25 million pounds to take him to Chelsea back in 2004, and he has since stacked up the honours. The Chelsea team was built to feed his offensive powers. Essien - "the bison" - was later bolted on to lend dynamic muscle.

Africans like Eto, Seydou Keita and Yaya Toure at Barcelona offer powerful portraits of success.

But, say Barbier and Derouet, they're just snapshots. The enduring image is of Russian dolls.

Africa - the tiniest - is hidden away. But at least we're able to see the products on a regular basis in a swath of competitions.

Of course none are bigger than the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa this summer.
Many of the stars of Cameroon, Cote D'Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana will be up against teammates or footballers they play against regularly. The question is how will these European based stars fare?

The legendary Pele predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. The Brazilian maestro got that well wrong. He should have hung out more with Shanks.

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