The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations run its course on Friday with a feel-good story that possibly underpins a newfound pride in local coaches. In the face of low expectations, this breed of coaches – once seen as no more than dying embers – rose to the occasion in Egypt by asserting themselves in meaningful ways.
Going into Afcon 2019, the numbers suggested that African FAs no longer found local coaches unimaginative and lacking in fresh ideas. With 11 of the 24 coaches that called the shots in the dugout coming from within, one couldn’t be tone-deaf to the fact that ‘locals’ were finally being lionised.
This clearly was not Afcon 2017 where only four of the 16 coaches that managed teams in Gabon were from within. All four of them had a brief moment in the sun (with two reaching the quarter-finals) before sinking without trace. Afcon 2019, though hardly in the finest fettle, made significantly more measurable strides. Local coaches did their job and by all accounts they did it well.
Djamel Belmadi (Algeria) and Aliou Cisse (Senegal), born just a day apart and bred in the same dormitory town near Paris, contested Friday’s final. They weren’t the only local coaches to stake their pressing claim to relevance. Seven of the 11 local coaches that graced Egypt 2019 used just the right mix of tenacity and charm to reach the knockout stages.
Although this is no mean feat, there is however always a danger of the devil being in the detail when numbers are thrown around. The gnawing unease in this case of number crunching is that an ebb and flow of local coaches has reared its ugly head at the Afcon finals since time immemorial. For instance, there was a wellspring of hope after two local coaches led their native countries to the Afcon 1998 final.
Jomo Sono (South Africa), known for the depth of his interpretations and elegance of his goal celebrations, was outfoxed and outwitted by Mahmoud El-Gohary (Egypt) in that 1998 final. But that was only half the story. The other half reminds us that nine of the 17 coaches that plied their trade at Afcon 1998 (ironically held in Egypt) were from within. They were faced with some daunting decisions, some on a level never before confronted by seasoned tacticians from without, but the former managed to hang in there. Three of them actually made it to the semi-finals.
Yet during the subsequent Afcon finals in 2002, blinded by a mixture of shaky performances and ghastly appearances in qualifying, only six of the 16 FAs that reached the big time trusted their own. The local coaches barely did themselves any favours, with an unseemly number being sucked into a tactical morass. Only one local coach made it to the semi-finals!
Pinch of salt
A pitiful number by any measure. So, will Afcon 2019 prove to be an exception? It is quite apparent that the power of local coaches in Africa evaporates with each day they serve. The constant affronts combined with local coaches’ insecurity simply fuel their growing paranoia. This has only succeeded in drawing ire from both sides of the aisle, resulting in a volatile exchange.
In Uganda, the local FA has invited applications for the Cranes head coach job following the departure of Frenchman, Sebastien Desabre. Many Cranes fans, however, appear to be taking BUBU (Build Uganda, Buy Uganda) piece of jingoism with a pinch of salt. It’s no surprise then that local coaches have decided to proceed with caution and scepticism.
History nevertheless tells us that there has been Ugandan representation the few times two local coaches have led their indigenous countries in an Afcon final. In 1978, our own Peter Okee came up against Fred Osam-Duodu (Ghana) in a losing cause. Can the system groom another Okee? Your guess is as good as mine!