One interesting statistic stood out for me when Mamelodi Sundowns won South Africa’s top-flight league title in the 2013-14 season. Exactly 20 years after the demise of apartheid, and in a country where football is the most followed sport amongst the black community, Sundowns’ Pitso Mosimane had made history as only the first black South African coach to steer a team to the country’s league championship.

In a country where the most celebrated footballers in its history are black, it’s surprising that it took this long for a black coach to make this achievement, within a predominately black sport.

Let’s leave South Africa and look at the global stage, where some of the finest footballers of all time have been black.  Black players have achieved as much as their white counterparts in world football. However, coaching at the highest level appears to be a no-go area for black football personalities.

Mamelodi Sundowns' players celebrate with the trophy after winning the CAF Champions League football competition following the final match against Egypt's Zamalek on October 23, 2016 at the Borg el-Arab Stadium near Alexandria. Photo: ANP/AFP Stringer
Mamelodi Sundowns’ players celebrate with the trophy after winning the CAF Champions League football competition following the final match against Egypt’s Zamalek on October 23, 2016 at the Borg el-Arab Stadium near Alexandria. Photo: ANP/AFP Stringer

When one looks at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Gabon, it’s clear that there is need to probe at what contributes to the success or failure of African coaches.

Is it an African or black thing?

One is tempted to analyse this issue in two forms: looking at African coaches, and black African coaches.

In the past 25 years, in which the modern Africa Cup of Nations has been played, only two black African coaches have won the tournament. They are Yeo Martial of Ivory Coast, who engineered his country’s title success in 1992, and Nigerian Stephen Keshi, who guided the Super Eagles to the podium in 2013.

In contrast, Egyptian Hasan Shehata (who is not a black man) led his country to three consecutive Nations Cup titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 during an era of Egyptian dominance in African football.

And then in 1996 when South Africa won their first and only Africa Cup of Nations title to date, they were under the stewardship of Clive Barker, a white South African.

AFCON Trophy Photo: Supersport/ Sydney Mahlangu /BackpagePix
AFCON Trophy Photo: Supersport/ Sydney Mahlangu /BackpagePix

Could this record suggest some sort of deficiency in ethnic black people as far as coaching is concerned? Or there are other factors such as coaching experience, level of academic education, technical expertise, investment and support from the government?

How they lined-up in Gabon

At the 2017 Afcon edition, four coaches out of the 16 are African, namely Callisto Pasuwa (Zimbabwe), Emile Ibenge (DR. Congo), Aliou Cisse (Senegal), and Baciro Cande (Guinea-Bissau).

Ghana’s Avram Grant, an Israeli, and Egypt’s Argentinean coach Hector Cuper were the only other non-Europeans. The rest, 10 of them, were European.

Few years back, this line-up could have been even more European, but with none of the African coaches guiding their teams to at least the last-four stage of the tournament, we could see more and more teams turning back to Europe in future.

Perceived lack of discipline

The most successful black African coach at the Afcon is the great Ghanaian Charles Gyamfi, who won three straight titles with his country in 1963, 1965 and 1982.

But those tournaments fall outside the modern era of the game in which football has gone through drastic and far-reaching changes.

The revolution means football coaching has become more and more scientific and technical, it requires a high degree of personal and professional discipline.

According to many critics, the technical expertise is what lacks in African coaches: lack of critical vision and sentimentality.

The Ivory Coast team celebrates its victorious AFCON 2015 . Photo: Getty
Gaining trust and respect of the star players is of utmost importance . Photo: Getty

At the Afcon level, where some teams are made up of an array of well-paid European-based stars – most with inflated egos – gaining trust and respect of the players is of utmost importance. Consistent adherence to high standards, on and off the field, is an area the European coaches who come to Africa normally do not compromise.

Degree of bias

Foreign coaches score marks over home-grown technical brains is area of team selection.

In Zimbabwe, following the team’s poor show in Gabon, sharp criticism has been directed at the coach Pasuwa for his perceived bias in selection.

A local coach like Pasuwa, who comes from the same environment as those he is supposed to manage, is more likely to develop an attachment to certain players who do not necessarily deserve places in the team. It’s perhaps only normal – but detrimental.

2006-01-31 17:00:00 A Zimbabwean fan cheers for "The Warriors" prior to the knock-out round game between the Black Stars of Ghana and Zimbabwe in the group D of the African Nations Cup (CAN) preliminary football, played in Ismailia, north of Cairo 31 January 2006. AFP PHOTO/ISSOUF SANOGO
2006-01-31 17:00:00 A Zimbabwean fan cheers for “The Warriors” prior to the knock-out round game between the Black Stars of Ghana and Zimbabwe in the group D of the African Nations Cup (CAN) preliminary football, played in Ismailia, north of Cairo 31 January 2006. AFP PHOTO/ISSOUF SANOGO

The perception is that foreign coaches, particularly those from Europe, are free of any bias due to their neutrality and are least likely to choose players on merit.

In professional sport, the difference between winning and losing has become so narrow, therefore making a bad selection has serious ramification on the whole process.

Different school-of-thought

However, to the late Keshi, who led his country Nigeria to 2013 Afcon glory in South Africa, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to Keshi, European coaches were only successful because of the preferential treatment they get from the African national football associations.

During the 2013 tournament, Keshi said local coaches did not receive as much support from their own associations as compared to when a European was in charge.

“The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money,” Keshi said. “They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that’s just the way it is.”

“I am never against a white coach in Africa, because I’ve always worked with white coaches. He added.

Keshi with old and current Super Eagles players after winning the AFCON CUP in 2013. Photo: punchng.com
Keshi with old and current Super Eagles players after winning the AFCON CUP in 2013. Photo: punchng.com

“If you want to bring in a classic, an experienced coach from Europe, I am ready to learn from that coach, because he’s better than me, he has more knowledge than me”.

“Meanwhile, we have quality African players, or ex-African players, [who are] coaches now that can do the same thing, but they’re not given the opportunity because they’re just black dudes. I don’t like it,” Keshi said.

Keshi’s remarks were made at a tournament that had seven coaches from Africa out of the 16. He would have obviously liked to see an improvement. But instead, four years later, there has been a reduction.

Keshi who died last June at the age of 54 would have had plenty to say about that.