The strides taken by African countries, notably Ghana and Nigeria in the FIFA Under-17 and Under-20 competitions, are just beginning to bear fruit. Football gurus did forecast that it was only a matter of time for the junior players to mature and step into the shoes of their senior colleagues.
If I remember very well, FIFA President Dr. João Havelange has paid glowing tribute to African football and prophesied that at the latest by the World Cup of 2002, an African country would emerge in the last four. This forecast of President Havelange is itself a tribute to his good self for nurturing and encouraging the youth competitions against all odds.
Nigeria's victory at this year's Olympics was therefore no fluke. It has come about as a result of a systematic regimen of competition, and in the case of Nigeria, of concentration both on and off the field of play. The experience gathered by Nigeria's senior national team at USA '94, particularly the shock defeat at the hands of a tactically superior Italy, was seen in reverse in Athens when Nigeria showed tactical superiority over mighty Brazil.
Nigeria's victory, even though well rehearsed and well deserved, must not breed complacency in African football. If you ask me whether African football has come of age as a result of Atlanta '96, I will only reiterate the optimism of Dr. Havelange. African football must therefore look ahead into the first years of the 21st century, which will be soon enough. We must admit that whereas African skills abound, we still have some way to go in the field of technique and even tactical play. The influx of African players into Europe and South America, however, will benefit Africa as our players will be influenced by the standards of those continents while one can never take from them their hard earned skills.
The fact is that Africans eat and drink football. You have to visit every nook and corner of the continent to see just how our little ones from toddlers to teenagers have acquired interest in kicking anything from an orange to a ball made of rags. Added to that is the fact that the modern game responds to African dance and rhythm. It was Shakespeare who described music as the food of love. Africans describe music as the food of football. Just observe African players as they twist and turn on the green turf and you will appreciate this point. Added to this is the fact that football in Africa has mass appeal and mass support.
It is therefore becoming obvious that African football is surging ahead because of the combination of African flair and South American Samba as well as European technique and concentration. Since the reverse is not immediately possible, i.e. for South Americans and Europeans to proceed to Africa to learn some skills, the African head start of skills and rhythm will move the standards in favour of Africa. It might be worthwhile, however, for the very young of Europe (the under-10's and under-12's) to arrange more friendly encounters with their counterparts in Africa in order to benefit from rhythm and skills.
Meanwhile, there are some teething problems and setbacks to be remedied or looked into for African teams to make greater impact in France '98 and beyond. African countries generally are still in the learning process and lack the big tournament experience. Others which have made good strides should take note that the process of questioning referees' decisions, the psychological effect after a goal is scored, and lack of concentration towards the end had been the bane of their defeat.
Our problem also include petty squabbles and disputes between players and officials. Football Associations also suffer from government interference. You cannot put much blame on this because the very existence of some governments depend on the performance of their national teams. The heavy turnover of football administrators and even technical benches has tendered to be typically African. Foreign coaches, even though welcome, sometimes want to impose restrictions on the flair of African players leading to total confusion in style and technique. Greater results will be realised if such coaches become more flexible in practice. Over and above the football problems of African countries are the financial constraints resulting from their weak economic base.
For Africa and the rest of the world, the message is that once the skills of African players cannot be taken away, African football can only move ahead.
Nigeria's "dream team" performance resulting from superlative displays in earlier youth tournaments confirms the African adage that "if you wash your hands, you can eat with kings". African footballers are on the threshold of eating with the kings of world football.