Postmortem: What Happened To Africa?

With just one day left in group play, I think it’s an appropriate time to ask what on Earth happened to Africa in this tournament? Unless the Ivory Coast manages to score a touchdown against North Korea tomorrow, just one African team out of six will make it through to the second round. And even that team — the U.S.’s second round opponent, Ghana — did it in thoroughly unimpressive fashion.

This was supposed to be the tournament where Africa made a real mark. Home soil, fan support, and teams that on paper looked strong all led to the impression that, while they likely wouldn’t win the thing, a few African teams would make a real run.

Theories abound for why Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, South Africa, and (probably) Ivory Coast will be watching the second round. They range from lack of soccer infrastructure to players having an “individual mentality rather a team mentality.”

I’d like to throw into the mix their lack of tactical acumen. And that doesn’t fall on the players shoulders, but on those of the coaches.

The African teams, particularly Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria, seem to be torn between doing what they’re good at — which is playing a quick, attacking game — and what other teams have successfully done against the powers in this particular tournament — which is sit back, play organized defense, and find a goal on the counter attack. (See: Switzerland versus Spain.)

Even when Ghana was up a man against Australia, it seemed reluctant to push the issue. Ivory Coast was absolutely terrified of going forward against Brazil until it was far too late. Algeria, in the 85th minute of a game against the U.S. that it needed to win, was content to bury the ball at the corner flag and hang back.

These teams were at their best, meanwhile, when they were pressing the issue. Cameroon got the better of Denmark (though it lost due to epically terrible finishing) by constantly going forward. South Africa, out of desperation, ran at France all game and won.

As Portugal’s assistant coach Dan Gaspar said of the African teams, “they are tactically naive and lose team shape.” This ultimately comes down to coaching and the implementation of a system that the players have bought into. And it certainly doesn’t help that coaching turnovers happened right before the tournament for multiple teams, with the Ivory Coast naming Sven Goran Eriksson literally just weeks beforehand.

There are obviously a host of reasons for why the African teams won’t be in the second phase of the tournament, including unrealistic expectations to begin with and political instability crippling what soccer infrastructure these nations do have. But stronger coaching and a better set of tactics that the players believed in would have done a lot for the nations playing on their own continent.


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