The former Cameroon captain Theophile Abega died in November, aged just 58. He was one of the great midfielders of what now seems a golden age of west African football; a period that lasted for about two decades, from the start of the 1980s, when it appeared that African teams might seriously challenge for the World Cup.
By the end of his life Abega was a big man, roundly solid beneath the giant Stetson he used to wear as mayor of the sixth arrondissement of Yaounde. As a player he had been a rangy and powerful midfielder, but his gifts were those of a technician. The goal for which he will always be remembered, the second in Cameroon’s 3-1 win over Nigeria in the Final of the 1984 African Nations Cup, was nothing to do with strength and all to do with pace, imagination, invention and close control. After gathering the ball just over the half-way line he jinked past one challenge, played a one-two with Roger Milla just outside the box and then finished deftly.
This, it seemed, was the west African ideal: a blend of muscularity, verve and skill, wrapped up in a willingness to take risks and do the unexpected.
Cameroon had already given glimpses of that style at the 1982 World Cup when, despite losing Jean Manga-Onguene to a knee injury shortly before the tournament began, they drew all three of their group games and were desperately unlucky to go out on goals scored behind Italy.
I met Abega in February 2012 and found him to be saddened by what has happened to both Cameroon and football generally on the continent. “African football is on a downturn, because teams like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are beating sides like Morocco and Senegal,” he told me. “Something is fundamentally wrong. In my day we went and beat these countries 7-0 or 9-0.”
It could be, of course, that the minnows are rising and that, in the long term, that is good for the African game. But Abega saw a lack of something in local players, adding: “Cameroon had great fighting spirit. That was our modus operandi in our heyday.
“Cameroonian players were once big and strong, but now they are like the Gabonese. We used to play a strong game with towering players, but now it doesn’t look like Cameroon. I don’t know why, but nowadays they are not physical any more.
“Sometimes we won games before they had started with our size. We intimidated the Italians in ’82 even though they were notorious for the rugged game that they played. We could feel that they were scared to death.
“Now when we play Gabon, or even Equatorial Guinea, they think they can win because they’re capitalising on the size of their players. They realise that Cameroon doesn’t have impressive footballers any more.”
It’s a fascinating argument, largely because it runs so counter to what most former players are saying.
Jay-Jay Okocha, who won Olympic gold with Nigeria in 1996, believes, for instance, that the decline in west African football has come from too great an emphasis on strength and discipline.
“African football is heading away from flair and more towards the team,” says Okocha. “Football has changed over the years and there aren’t really any playmakers anymore. It’s more about tactical work. I see African countries playing more like European ones. That’s the only way to become competitive. It’s a pity it’s at the expense of flair because fans want to see good football.”
But leaving aside what constitutes good football, how can west African sides best play winning football?
The two most successful west African sides of the past few years have been Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Ghana reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup playing well-organised football, sitting deep with Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah breaking quickly to join the target man, Asamoah Gyan. The Ivory Coast’s game has been based on explosive power and in the 2012 African Nations Cup they were noticeably risk-averse, trusting that if they kept things tight eventually Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure or Gervinho would do something to win the game.
Neither team has a creator in the mould of Okocha or Abega. Kwadwo Asamoah looked as though he might have the capacity to become one, but he has been converted into a left wingback at Juventus. Gervinho was touted as an inventive presence out on the flank, but his decision-making is too erratic for him to be considered an heir to that line.
It’s not so much that west African creators struggle to find a place within more rigorous frameworks; more that they don’t exist at all. And that raises questions about development.
Tom Vernon, who runs an academy in the hills above Accra, has long spoken of the Pape Bouba Diop template – that European clubs shop in certain areas for certain types of player. Because of the success of Diop and Michael Essien, there is a perception that west Africans make good driving midfielders, just as there is a perception that Argentina is the place to shop for number 10s. This means that promising young players are encouraged to fulfil those roles.
There are other factors – such as organisation, infrastructure, corruption and generational changes – but one of the reasons that African nations seem no nearer to winning a World Cup now than they were 20 years ago is an abundance of one type of player.
While the 1980s may have been too carefree for the modern game, west Africa football seems to have gone too far the other way. Perhaps it was a necessary stage of development, but the key now is to find a way of incorporating creativity within the system.
The problem is, they’ve got to find the players first.
By Jonathan Wilson