Senegal’s victorious Lions of Teranga Credit: GIN photo

Africa may finally be trusting its own coaches.

This year’s Africa Cup of Nations featured 15 African-born coaches, leading some to conclude that local coaches had broken through racial and ethnic barriers to a level long reserved for Europeans.

But do the success stories in a few nations mean that the coaching pathway has truly opened up for local coaches in Africa?

While impossible to say definitively, the success of Aliou Cisse, coach of Senegal’s Lions of Teranga in this year’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON), appeared to erase all doubts in the minds of thousands of Senegalese fans celebrating jubilantly across the country’s capital.

“He allowed us to get the cup we had been waiting for for years. We’ve none better than him,” said one of Cisse’s ecstatic fans.

Until recently, European coaches were preferred by African teams despite their spotty achievements on the continent. In the book “Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Soccer,” author Ian Hawkey confirmed what many knew to be true.

“It’s tough for an African coach or manager to get a good job in soccer and even tougher for him to keep it,” he wrote. “But it can appear very easy to get a good coaching job in African soccer if you are from Europe or South America.”

One such European coach was Claude Le Roy, nicknamed “the White Wizard,” who arrived in Cameroon and took charge of the Indomitable Lions in 1986. After a narrow defeat in that year, they trounced Nigeria 1-0 with a lone goal in
the 55th minute.

The 73-year-old Le Roy took over Togo’s team in 2016. He managed to lead them to the 2017 finals in Gabon but he was sacked after they failed to reach the 2021 AFCON finals in Cameroon.

“To say Togo’s journey in the AFCON qualifiers was underwhelming would be an understatement,” wrote Ali Ismail, sports analyst. The team would now miss on their second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations, with their last appearance coming in 2017 one year after Le Roy’s appointment.

Despite several defeats, Le Roy managed to win the Cameroonian Order of Merit, the second highest honorary decoration in 2021. He returned the honor with a signed copy of his book “Claude Le Roy, Blond Magician,” which he gifted to President Biya.

Winfried Schäfer of Germany also coached the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon from 2001 to 2004. Schafer claimed credit for getting Samuel Eto’o Fils, arguably the best African player of all time, to “train full throttle.” Herve Renard, another Frenchman, was recently recruited from Saudi Arabia at a salary of $100,000 monthly to coach Ghana’s Black Stars.

Meanwhile, African coaches were forced to settle for interim positions, often being replaced before the major competitions came around.

“We felt powerless and hurt by these choices,” Mali’s national coach Mohamed Magassouba told DW, the German news service. “To those above, we were not good enough to manage our national teams. No matter what we did, we were not supported.”

“Native coaches in general are not respected,” he told DW, “even when we have the required skills and the same qualifications as Europeans.”

Sadly, Africans recruited to play in European teams have found themselves locked into contracts that deny their right to play at home for major games.

Just before the recent African Cup games, European clubs initially refused to release their African players to their national teams for the tournament last month. The association body of European clubs, ECA, linked the decision to the pandemic.

European clubs and nations use their powerful economic position to dictate the contract terms for soccer players from African nations.

The loss of Africa’s most talented soccer players to European leagues has been viewed as ongoing post-colonial exploitation. Ydnekatchew Tessema, former president of the Confederation of African Football, a vociferous critic of the export of African players, once argued: “When the rich countries take away from us our best elements, we should not expect any chivalrous behavior on their part to help African soccer.”

Analysis of the 2018 World Cup in Russia revealed a high presence of African (Black and Arabic) players in top European teams. Of the four semi-finalist teams, only Croatia was 100% white, while France (63% white), Belgium (31% white) and England (37% white) had a high number of children of immigrants.

This increasing prominence of African players has both positive and negative consequences. In the words of Inter Milan star, born to Congolese parents, Romelu Lukaku: “When things were going well…they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

After their historic victory in last month’s competition, the Senegalese national team was rewarded with a cash prize of $87,100 and a plot of land in the capital Dakar. The team was crowned champions of Africa for the first time in their history.

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