It’s Time to Ask What Africa Needs

It’s Time to Ask What Africa Needs


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The ideas just keep coming. From Europe’s leading clubs: a proposal to expand the Champions League, to squeeze four more lucrative matchdays into the competition’s format. From UEFA: a whole new trophy to win, but one for countries that feel (rightly) excluded from the Champions League.

From FIFA: another new tournament, this one in the summer and based on the Club World Cup — the one that was, in itself, an expansion of the old Intercontinental Cup — but bigger, richer, and more in China. And, as my colleague Tariq Panja reported this week, from Stephen M. Ross and his Relevent Sports team: a version of the International Champions Cup that is conspicuously more than a meaningless preseason moneymaking exercise.

They are all, for now, under consideration, despite the endless warnings from FIFPro — the global players’ union — and from a number of leading managers, not least Jürgen Klopp, that players are already facing the risk of burnout, that soccer is in danger of strangling its golden goose. The meetings still go on, in locked rooms and hushed tones in five-star hotels, the workshopping, the brainstorming. There is no such thing as a bad idea.

Last week, it was confirmed that this year’s African Cup of Nations — Africa’s equivalent of the Copa América, or the European Championship — would, in fact, be next year’s African Cup of Nations: Cameroon, the host, has noted that it is far too hot to play the tournament in June and July, and so it has shifted it, quite understandably, to January. (The fact its summer dates would have clashed with the new Club World Cup was a factor, too).

This is, in many ways, not a new idea: the Cup of Nations always used to be played in the (European) winter, until it was decided in 2017 that it should be played, instead, in the (European) summer.

The thinking was flawed — it did not require a meteorologist to work out that temperatures would rule out a swath of countries as potential hosts — but the logic was simple: pretty much all of Africa’s highest-profile players work for clubs in Europe. Switching it to the off-season made sense for them, and for their employers.

The switch back, then, is not exactly popular: Everyone in the corridors of power might be willing to contemplate almost any other proposal for new tournaments or ruining existing ones, but the restoration of a historic, important competition to its usual dates is universally seen as A Bad Thing. Have the African authorities not thought about what effect they will have on the integrity of the Premier League at all?

There will come a point when this Eurocentric thinking has to stop. Yes, that is where all the money is. Yes, that is the economic engine financing the global game. But it is not the limit of soccer’s horizons. It does not own the game.

Making sure everything works well for Europe will, eventually, have damaging consequences elsewhere: in terms of attendance and interest in local competitions (which has already happened across Africa) and, possibly, down the line, in the development of players. Europe has to start thinking of itself as the tip of the pyramid: the summit, yes, but in quite a bit of trouble if the rest of the edifice is not secure.

There is one idea for a new competition that appeals. It came, back in November, from an unlikely source: Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the concept that a stopped clock is right twice in a day fitted out in a finely-tailored suit. On a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Infantino suggested that a Pan-African league should be under consideration.

His theory was, obviously, based on money: he thought that such a competition might be able to command revenues of $200 million a year. But there is a sound logic behind it.

Africa is home to a couple of dozen major clubs: Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in South Africa; Al Ahly and Zamalek in Egypt; Espérance and Étoile du Sahel in Tunisia; DR Congo’s TP Mazembe; and Ghana’s Asante Kotoko, among others. A league of 20 teams, as Infantino suggested, would be of a far higher standard than any of the national competitions they currently call home.

That would be beneficial, of course, for players, and the prospect of selling continental broadcast rights would help improve facilities and infrastructure. It might, even, enable teams to hold on to some of their brightest prospects for just a little longer, delaying the exodus for Europe.

It might, in other words, provide the basis for another pole to emerge in soccer’s firmament: not enough to compete with Europe, but to rebalance things just a little. Soccer is weaker if western Europe has a monopoly on talent, on wealth, on power, as it does now. It is healthier if Africa — and Asia, North and South America and the rest — can make decisions without having to think how Europe will react. This might be a step on that road.

The ire at Old Trafford is mounting. Two defeats in the space of three days — first, painfully, at Liverpool, and then, humiliatingly, at home to Burnley — have brought Manchester United’s fans to the brink of mutiny. They want Ed Woodward, the man who runs the club, gone, and they want the Glazer family, the owner that employs him, out as well.

That neither will happen encapsulates United’s problem. The complaint against the Glazers has long been that the club would have been able to spend far more in the transfer market, strengthening its squad, if the Glazer family had not continually drained its finances to service debts and pay off interest.

And yet, since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, Manchester United has spent more than £1 billion on transfers. That is an eye-watering sum, and not just because it has been so consistently wasted. United’s recruitment in the last seven years has been so bad it’s a leap to believe that all it needed was another few hundred million pounds.

No, the issue is not the lack of spending, it is the lack of culture. The Glazers will not fire Woodward because he is good at making United a commercial powerhouse, at keeping the money rolling in.

They have created a club where sporting decisions have a secondary importance to financial ones, where the rapid decline we have seen in the last few years can be tolerated if the balance sheet remains healthy, and where nobody has the expertise or knowledge even to recognize the causes of the slide, let alone halt it. United lacks a clear on-field vision and a defined, modern off-field structure. It has invested money in players, but not in itself.

At the risk of taking something that is supposed to be lighthearted fun rather too seriously, allow me to address one of the worst developments of this Premier League season: the rise of the League Table Without VAR.

You will, I suspect, have seen one, either on your social media feed or in a variety of publications, both major and minor. The premise is simple: this is how many points each team would have if English soccer had not introduced a video assistant refereeing system at the start of the season.

The premise — and, yes, I know it’s meant to be nothing more than curiosity-as-content, not taken to heart — is also, sadly, deeply stupid, and for two reasons. One is that VAR is merely a method for enforcing the actual rules. It has mostly made decisions correctly (even if we do not always like how correct those decisions are). Would anyone think to publish a league table if the offside rule did not exist? A league table if you were allowed to pick the ball up and throw it? A league table if everyone on the field had a sword? No, they wouldn’t.

The second reason, though, is that this kind of thing encourages a fundamental misunderstanding of causality. Let’s use, as an example, the penalty Manchester City was eventually not awarded against Crystal Palace last week. If it had been given (and scored), it does not necessarily follow that City would have won, 3-2. Maybe Palace would have shut up shop more effectively. Maybe City would have won by 6-1. Maybe Sergio Agüero is not in position to score either of his subsequent two goals.

What’s the phrase? Oh yes. Goals change games. Or, as analysts put it, they affect the game-state. Does any of this matter? Yes and no. That it is intellectually vapid is not important, but the fact that it adds to an atmosphere of suspicion and credulity and conspiracy is not helpful at all.

Writing about Mario Balotelli a few weeks ago, one of his former coaches mentioned one of those age-old tropes you tend to get about players who develop physically more quickly than their peers. Goals had always come easily to him, the coach said, because he was bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else; he never needed to learn the actual craft of the game.

Writing about Adama Traoré this week, an alternative explanation occurred. Traoré, like Balotelli, was always the biggest, quickest kid on his teams. It is what made him stand out as a teenager, what built his early reputation.

But speaking to those who have worked with him, I wonder now if the problem isn’t that he never needed to learn, but that his unique skill-set made it hard for coaches to work out a way to deploy him. Soccer is really good at identifying talent; it is less good at working out how best to accommodate it, especially if you do not fit a pattern. And Traoré, with his sprinter’s speed and powerlifter’s build, really does not fit a pattern.

Last week’s mention of Harry Kane, and Tottenham’s difficulty in identifying suitable cover for him, brought a cascade of opinions, ranging from Steve’s view that “they don’t need a backup, they need a replacement” to the suggestion from Wesley Jenkins that the solution might already be in-house. “What about Troy Parrott? Every commentator I follow has been singing his praises for a year now. Why not let him take the reins while Kane is hurt?”

Nick Adams points out that all of this is entirely predictable. “Every year Harry Kane is injured,” Nick wrote. “As he ages, he clearly needs some respite. Wouldn’t it be sensible to drop him for the F.A. Cup and some Premier League fixtures? Harry Kane should want this, too.”

There’s a degree of merit in all of these suggestions. I think selling Kane is a little drastic, but those funds could, as Steve said, rebuild basically the rest of the team. Parrott is certainly worth a shot — if you’re not familiar with the name, he’s a very talented 17-year-old Irish forward — but asking him to lead the line is a major leap. And yes, Kane should want rest, but part of the problem is that Kane does not want rest.

I was intrigued, too, by an idea from Bruce: “Why do both teams get a point for a game that finishes goal-less? Why not zero? Make the teams earn a point by scoring at least once each.” Generally, I think the point-scoring in soccer works well, but I could be persuaded, I think, that a goal-less draw might be worth one point and a goal-scoring draw worth two. I wonder what the table would look like if that rule applied now?

That’s all for this week. I’m on Twitter, as ever, and if you prefer your opinions in audio form, feel free to try the Set Piece Menu podcast. All correspondence to askrory@nytimes.com is more than welcome, and feel free to send this link to everyone you have ever met.

Have a great weekend.





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