An overview of African soccer by Ivan Piñol (Technical Director, Samuel Eto'o Fils development school, Gabon)
June 11, 2013
The following represents an overview of African football, specifically Gabonese soccer in terms of amateur, professional and development levels.
Africa and a passion for football
To understand African football we must understand that, in Africa, football is synonymous with passion: where any free space is ideal to place a couple of rocks, logs or a pair of shoes to create some improvised goalposts. Whether in the street, the neighborhood or the beach: pure football 24 hours a day.
The young - and not so young - all dream and focus on traveling to Europe - and it is this passion for soccer which unites them all.
In footballing terms, Gabon is undergoing a period of national growth: hosting the African Cup of Nations 2012, the national team put in a remarkable performance: with the “Panthers” reaching the quater finals, where they were finally eliminated at the hands of one of the tournament favourites, Mali.
Since then, despite having players competing within various European professional leagues, Gabon failed to qualify for the ACN 2013 and have been practically eliminated from the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil: a disappointment for the hosts of the ACN 2012 and a country witnessing the resurgence of young players like Pierre Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund), A.Biyogo Poko (Girondins Bordeaux), Alexander N'dombou (OM), or L.Madinda (Celta Vigo). For now, the dream of competing in the World Cup Finals will have to wait.
One of the peculiarities of African football in general and, in this case, Gabon, is the strength of loyalty the people show toward the national team
It really is a special relationship and the nation fully identifies with its players.
A clear example of the progress being made within Gabonese soccer is the naming of Pierre Emerick as the African Player of the year in Ligue1 (formerly of Saint Etienne, recently signed for the current Champions League runners up Borussia Dortmund): a prestigous award in a league with a great tradition of African footballers.
‘The Panthers’ are currently 81st in the FIFA Rankings and 20th amongst the African teams.
The nation’s greatest success at youth level was victory at the ACN 2011 U23 tournament, and their recent, modest performance at the Olympic Games in London 2012, finishing ahead of established sides such as Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland.
Gabonese Football and Professionalization
The national football league is currently undergoing significant change and, now a fully professionalized competition, it is hoped that this will have a positive impact upon the game and improve its overall quality.
Gabonese football is characteristically tough, physically strong, not particularly pleasing on the eye and typically a counter-attacking style of play with a low goal tally (the top scorer in the league scored just 12 goals throughout the competition). With an over reliance on long balls, there is little midfield participation.
The prototype of the Gabonese footballer is a player with excellent stamina, physically strong, good physique, quick and agile. Undoubtedly, African players tend to be strong and quick: characteristics that are decisive in the modern game.
Of course, the Gabonese competition is not at the same level as other African leagues, such as Egypt, Tunisia and South Africa; but in sporting terms there are some very interesting players in the national team squad.
It is a league comprised of local players or players from nearby countries such as Cameroon, Congo, and severa Central African states - although since its professionalization its appeal has grown and it now incorporates players from Brazil, Portugal or France.
Development stage and youth Football
As in most African countries there is a major problem within youth football that is, in my opinion, a consequence of a wrongful perception of what is the purpose of football at the development level where, unfortunately, the main objective is to win rather than develop.
In junior leagues it is common to see children of 12 years old competing with 15 or 16 year olds: where the 3 or 4 year age gap entails a degree of physical risk, not to mention being totally unfair at a competitive level.
The first step towards improving standards is to aim for improving the training of coaches in Gabon, opening their minds to new methodologies, understand that a coach is not just a labourer, but someone who has a great potential for development in his hands and that that his job is not only to win games but to accept responsibility as "coach-educator". This mis-management of football at junior levels has a negative long-term impact upon all professional levels and the national team beyond that.
There are many bad habits in African football, especially at junior levels but it has retained something that the European game has lost: the characteristics of street football: "I want to beat my friend, because I am better than him."
Children are the future and taking care of the game at youth level guarantees improvement and, consequently, brings success.
Aspects that can increase the level of African football
There is plenty of potential, but it remains largely untapped: wasted by a lack of professionalism, the training of coaches and the application of methodologies and general organization.
There are elements that I feel should be taken into account to improve the level of African football that accords with the potential and room for improvement shown by the players, including:
- Learning to protect the ball, retain posession and encourage players to use movement to make themselves available for team mates.
- Stop playing long, speculative balls as the only means of attack that lacks structure and purpose. You have to make sense of attacking football and you do so by alternating between the long and short game.
- Alter the tempo of the game and progress judiciously.
- Teach decision making and encourage players to make the right decisions to create smart players able to make the right decisions at the right time.
- Teach quality finishing, despite the fact that there are players who possess this innate talent, it is a very important factor to improve a team’s effectiveness in the final few metres and is often the decisive factor in a game, regardless of the overall performance of the tea.
- Training and teaching of tactical intelligence, giving the player the necessary skills and training for real-game situations. This means asking players to make decisions accordingly - both individually and collectively - and really getting them to know how to make the right call in any situation.