Man United boss Erik ten Hag added to his backroom team with the appointment of Benni McCarthy as a first-team coach. Photo credit: Benni McCarthy via Twitter/@bennimccarthy17.
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Is the English Premier League close to its first African head coach?

African footballers have made the English Premier League the global spectacle that it is today. A galaxy of Africans have served several clubs in top European leagues with distinction. Despite the unquestionable talent and technical expertise, former African stars and coaches from the continent don’t seem to have the trust of European clubs to run the show from the touchline.

Recent ex-English Premier League stars like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Mikel Arteta have already held jobs as head coaches in the English Premier League, arguably the best and most competitive domestic football competition in the world.

Before them, there is an endless list of former EPL players who have made the step-up to coaching at the top level, post-playing days.

But a stark fact to consider is that all the Premier League footballers-turned-coaches are from Britain and continental Europe as well as the Americas. 

No Africans at the top

Notwithstanding that Africa has given the post-1992 Premiership some of its best players of all time, Africans haven’t been seen as being capable of handling coaching positions in the UK and Europe in general.

There seems to be a gradual attitude change, with some well-known Africans former players getting backroom staff roles within European clubs, particularly in England. Take for instance Ivory Coast’s Kolo Touré, the former Premiership star defender, who has been an assistant coach at EPL side Leicester City since 2019.

Overall, the slow pace of transition into coaching – according to London-based journalist Stanley Kwenda – is in great part due to African footballers’ reluctance to multi-task during their playing days. 

“One of the main reasons is that when our African brothers play here in Europe, they tend to concentrate on the task at hand at that time, which is delivering for their teams,” Kwenda, who covers the English Premiership for BBC, said to This Is Africa.

“Most of footballers who have gone on to become modern managers in modern football, for example Pep Guardiola and the likes of Mikael Arteta, start early. Even some who are still playing like Kevin De Bruyne, he is already doing his coaching badges. So they tend to start early. They combine their playing careers and studying, and thinking about what they are going to do with their lives after football.” 

Didier Drogba. Photo: Global Sports Forum/Flickr

“Our brothers tend to leave it until too late. Yaya Toure started doing his badges after he had hung his boots. His brother Kolo Toure started towards the end of his playing career. Towards the end of his playing career Kolo was quite fortunate to have played under the Leicester City coach (Brendan Rodgers) who he played under at Liverpool and encouraged him to think about life after football. He was persuaded to take coaching badges,” Kwenda noted.

Coaching at the highest level in Europe is extremely competitive, so it is hugely important to make hay while the sun shines. 

“It’s about getting the right mentorship whilst you are still playing, to decide what you want to do,” added Kwenda. “Most of our African players don’t have that sort of guidance. Most often they don’t find these sort of opportunities because it’s a very cutthroat industry. There are a lot of people who want to take up coaching and once you are out of the system it’s very difficult to access opportunities that are inside.”

“People like Steven Gerrard, people like Frank Lampard, people like John Terry, they started thinking about coaching when they were still playing. Whilst they were playing, they were also applying the lessons that they were getting from some of the great managers that they played under, the likes of Jose Mourinho, the likes of (Carlo) Ancelotti,” Kwenda added.

Be that as it may, who possibly can be the first thoroughbred African to take charge of an EPL club? 

South African Pitso Mosimane, the best coach on the African continent today, has already dismissed his chances of ever coaching in Europe, describing the possibility of that taking place as “fairy-tale stories that will never happen.” 

The outspoken but highly successful former Mamelodi Sundowns and Al Ahly coach rather sarcastically voiced this opinion not out of lack of confidence in his own abilities, but out of mistrust in the will of the European football system to hire a black coach, let alone one from Africa.

But Mosimane may well find himself at a European club if say his fellow countryman Benni McCarthy makes a success of his recent appointment by Manchester United as strikers’ coach.

This is the view of Mthokozisi Dube, Editor of South African football publication FARPost.

“African coaches coaching top clubs in Europe, it won’t happen overnight,” Dube told This Is Africa.

“But imagine if Benni does well at Manchester United with (head coach) Erik ten Hag. I think Pitso Mosimane would be viewed with a different eye, you know, as a South African coach who has done extremely well but has not got that break into the European leagues. So I think it paves way for other coaches. I can also give you an example of (well-travelled Congolese coach) Florent Ibengé. I’m not sure if it applies here but yes, he is one of those African coaches who potentially could coach at the highest level.”

McCarthy’s arrival in Manchester at the beginning of this new season coincided with the appointment of Ivory Coast legend Yaya Touré as coach of the Under-16 side of Premiership club Tottenham Hotspur. 

“It’s quite interesting to see African coaches getting these type of jobs, you know, Kolo (Toure) for a long time has worked with Brendan Rodgers. And Benni now with Erik ten Hag and Yaya at Tottenham,” added Dube.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. For the longest time, we’ve always felt that these guys have done extremely well in the EPL and they deserve to coach at the highest level.”

McCarthy and Yaya Toure’s coaching careers should soar following their new appointments, Dube went on.

“I think this is a step in the right direction because a guy like Benni, when you think of the future of the South African national team, he’s the best candidate,” Dube said. 

South African Pitso Mosimane, the best coach on the African continent today.

“So hopefully these guys, someday because of the experience that they are getting at those clubs, will be able to come and make use of all those experiences. That experience goes a long way. I know Benni has ambitions of coaching in Europe so I think that it brings him closer to his dream of being a head coach in one of the European clubs. Look, when you have coached at Manchester United, it puts you in a very good position in other leagues in Europe. With Yaya at Spurs, it’s even more interesting for him because he is younger and still has a lot of time ahead of him in terms of developing into a good coach. So it’s really good, it’s a step at a time.”

Kwenda agrees on the great potential of Africans as coaches at the highest level of the game. While he faults African footballers for not taking a proactive approach in quest for coaching gigs in Europe upon hanging up their boots, Kwenda is however not oblivious to the lack of a level playing field on the coaching side of European football. 

“Having said that, there is no denying that there are very limited opportunities for our African brothers here in Europe,” Kwenda stressed. “It’s a very pertinent question to ask to say ‘we have had so many of them (players) here in Europe as players, doing very well, playing at the highest level but it hasn’t translated into coaching’. But because it’s a closed society, a closed system, it involves a lot of money and it comes with certain levels of trust. So sometimes our African brothers lack that sort of trust from owners of these football clubs, they don’t seem to want to give them opportunities. They tend to think it’s a big risk to appoint our African brothers, a lot of them who are unproven.”

While Europe is the dream destination, the road to fame and the means to make a fortune, there is also an African solution to the process.           

“Our brothers need the support of African football federations because most of the coaches in Europe gained their licenses through local FAs,” Kwenda added. 

“I think Yaya Toure got his badges through the Welsh football association, Benni McCarthy through the Scottish football association, the likes of John Terry and others got theirs through the English FA. So our African football associations must come with deliberate programmes to assist some of these players to get top-level coaching because these courses are quite expensive and they are very intensive. This kind of support is needed, be it in facilitating fees for some of them, technical help for some, and adapting to life after football.  You know, it’s not an easy thing being adored as a football player and then having to go back to class to study.”

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