On duty in South Africa as a media pundit, the Ghana-born Desailly has always been a passionate supporter of African football. While impressed by the progress the African game is making, the man they call The Rock said he is looking to the players to express themselves more.
FIFA.com: What are your thoughts on the group phase of the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations?
Marcel Desailly: If you compare this AFCON to the last one, you’ll see that standards are levelling out. There are a lot of new faces around. I’m delighted to see Burkina Faso establish themselves and Cape Verde Islands, who’ve achieved great things under a top-class coach (Lucio Antunes). I’m not surprised by Zambia’s elimination because it was always going to be difficult for them to repeat their exceptional team performance at the last AFCON, and they were under pressure to do well. Nigeria, who didn’t make the finals last time round, have shown with their coach Stephen Keshi that they can’t be ruled out either. Overall, it’s been pretty satisfying although I’d have liked the North African teams to have done better. When you see the standard Egypt have set in recent finals, I was hoping to see one of the Maghreb teams come and show the kind of technical ability the Pharaohs have produced in the past.
Why do you think Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco missed out on the second round?
I think they lacked physical presence, and that stopped them from expressing their tactical and technical qualities. Unfortunately, when you come up against the West African teams you have to be very well prepared in physical terms if you want to win the personal duels. Egypt could take on any team on the continent because they were so technically, tactically and physically accomplished. I think that’s what they need to look for and what they’ll have to find if they’re going to progress in the future.
Who have been the big surprises so far?
Cape Verde Islands. They’ve come out of nowhere! South Africa too. I didn’t see them getting past the second round at all. I even felt that if they hadn’t been hosts, they’d have had a hard job qualifying for the tournament. It’s great to see them doing so well, though. It’s good for the competition.
Are there any players who’ve caught your eye in this first stage of the tournament?
I feel it’s lost a bit of its magic in that respect. The AFCON has come on in lots ways, like the organisation and media coverage, which are now up there with other international competitions. What’s lacking a little bit, though, are the unknown names you used to get breaking through 15 or so years ago. These days everyone’s already been spotted and most of them are with European clubs. The ones who are playing for local clubs have lost a little bit of that creative sparkle. That’s because they’ve come through training programmes that tend to knock the individuality out of them a bit and they’re coached by people who know the modern game. All I can say is, let’s be crazy. Let’s dribble with the ball, try a nutmeg in the box, or a Zidane turn. These days you see a lot less tricks.
Have you been keeping a close eye on Ghana, your country of birth?
Yes, of course. I’m happy they’ve appointed a local coach (James Kwesi Appiah), who has made some good choices. He’s put his faith in Porto’s Christian Atsu Twasam, who’s struck up a good partnership with Asamoah Gyan in attack. There are one or two players who’ve made the breakthrough too, like Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Anthony Annan, who have made up for the absences of John Mensah and Michael Essien. We’ve come across a very good generation and they’re not exactly the same players that won the U-20 World Cup in 2009. The players have got the right mindset and they’re working as a team at this tournament, which wasn’t always the case in previous competitions.
Would Ghana-Côte d'Ivoire be your dream final?
I love Côte d'Ivoire, but I believe in sharing things out. I want to see new faces in the final rounds rather than the same teams, who’ve hade their chance before. What Zambia did last year was fantastic. It reminded me of Denmark or Greece, who managed to pull off shocks in tournaments without making a single mistake. I’d love to see Cape Verde Islands do something like that too.
Côte d'Ivoire have had an exceptional generation but have won nothing. Do they deserve to pick up a trophy?
I love all the teams but I can’t be sentimental about it – otherwise I’d be saying that Ghana deserve it or that Cameroon should have won it in 2008. It’s not a reward. You’re there to play and that’s what it’s all about.