African Talent Development: Is Wenger right about African Footballers?
Arsene Wenger’s comments on Africa talent Development during a recent coaching conference in Germany, where he said that if PSG and France star Kylian Mbappe ‘had been born in Cameroon, he wouldn’t have become the striker he is today”.
He also claimed Europe is the only continent where players can reach their potential.
Africa has produced top football talent, who shone like a million stars on the continent but hardly got any recognition because they never made it to the European Leagues.
Mohammed Aboutreika, Godfrey Chitalu, Segun Odegbami. These names are some of the top talents that didn’t play in Europe, hence a below-par celebration of their talent.
There is also no doubt about the lack of infrastructure in most of the continent. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya before the devastation from the war and South Africa are Countries with good infrastructure out of 54 member associations of CAF.
Africa has produced great players from pre-independence to the 60s and beyond.
You can see the difference in the fortunes of players who migrated to Europe and those who remained in Africa.
No Honour For Local African Football Heroes
Eusebio and Mario Coluna were both born in Mozambique. Both players became the pillars of Portugal’s great 1966 World Cup team that beat Brazil en En route to the semi-finals.
Godfrey Chitalu of Zambia and Segun Odegbami of Nigeria are two examples from the 70s and George Weah of Liberia in the 80s
Chitalu scored over 100 goals in 1972, but no one took notice, but when Lionel Messi scored 93 goals for Barcelona in 2012, 40 years later, everyone waxed lyrical about it as something no one had ever achieved.
Africa Talent Development: The Difference In Playing In Europe And Africa
Segun Odegbami and Roger Milla ran toe to toe in the 1976 African cup winners Cup with Odegbami leading Shooting Stars to victory over Tonnerre of Cameroon in the finals.
Milla moved to Valenciennes in France in 1977, while Odegbami continued to torment African defences, emerging top scorer at the Afcon 78 in Ghana, where Nigeria finished third and again in 1980 when he led the Super Eagles to their first African title.
Odegbami narrowly missed out on Argentina 78 and Spain 82 World Cups at the last hurdle with Nigeria but imagine what his legacy would have been having if he moved to Europe.
However, it’s Milla, with his exploits in France with Monaco, Bastia, St Etienne, Montpellier, and heroics for Cameroon in 1982, and especially the 1990 and 94 World Cup, that is more celebrated.
George Weah was born in Liberia but needed a move to Cameroon, where he stared for Tonnerre of Cameroon in the Caf Champions Cup in the 80s to get continental attention and eventually attract European Coaches and scouts.
The rest is history for Weah, who remains the only African to win the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the year in 1995.
Africa Talent Development: Wenger and the heart for Africa
Arsene Wenger has a special place in African Football for his role in the careers of many African great footballers.
Two of them stand out, Weah and Nigerian international Nwankwo Kanu.
Here’s George Weah on Wenger, “He was a father figure and regarded me as his son. This was a man when racism was at its peak, who showed me, love. He wanted me to be on the pitch for him every day.
“One day, I was quite tired of training and told him that I was having a headache. He said to me: ‘George, I know it’s tough, but you need to work hard. I believe that with your talent, you can become one of the best players in the world’. So, I listened and kept going on. Besides God, I think that without Arsène, there was no way I would have made it in Europe.”
Wenger had this to say, ‘I remember when I saw him the first time at Monaco, coming in a bit lost, not knowing anybody, not being rated by anybody as a player and becoming the best player in the world in 1995 and today becoming the president of his country,’
Africa Talent Development: Like Weah, Like Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu inspired his country to the World U17 title in Japan 93 before earning a move to Ajax, where he would, alongside compatriot Finidi George, win their Dutch league titles with Ajax Amsterdam and the 1995 UEFA champions league.
With his stock on the rise, Kanu led Nigeria to the Olympic football Gold in 1996, earning a move to Inter Milan.
Kanu’s career hit the wall after the detection of a heart ailment. The diagnosis briefly halted his career, even after surgery.
However, his career received help from Arsene Wenger, who took a gamble on him by signing him for Arsenal.
Kanu enjoyed perhaps his best years, including being part of the “Invincibles”, who won the premier league unbeaten in 2004.
“Wenger is not just a football coach. He’s a man who knows we are all human beings before footballers. And that’s why he was able to affect the lives of so many people positively”. Former Nigerian international Nwankwo Kanu, told Al Jazeera.
Africa’s Infrastructure Challenge and Wenger’s Solution
Arguments that Wenger does know a thing or two about talent development in Africa with his first-hand experience are valid.
There is no doubt other continents have better infrastructures, and Africa needs help to move beyond the amateur situation. The reality is that the recent survey that Wenger is leading makes a lot of sense.
Wenger said: ‘Amateur football is a crucial foundational aspect of global football development. A strong amateur football system ensures that anybody wanting to play football has the opportunity to do so. Also, at any level, allowing all aspects of the game to flourish in that country.
The FIFA Amateur Football Programme, linked to the FIFA Talent Development Scheme, is part of our commitment to developing the base layers of the football pyramid whilst providing all of our Member Associations with growth opportunities from a global perspective.’