Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Not Just About Talent

West African countries have the players to win the World Cup, but they can’t develop them -- just like their economies.

Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images
Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images
Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images

Pelé, perhaps the best football player of all time, who carried Brazil to three World Cup titles, famously predicted that an African team would win the tournament before the year 2000. Could 2014 finally be the year that Africa upends the European-South American duopoly? 

Despite the fact that there are many successful African soccer players, many of whom have become household names at Champions League teams in Europe, skepticism abounds over an African national team winning the World Cup. History suggests that when it comes to playing for their respective national teams, these football stars do not flicker as brightly as they do when playing for their club teams in Europe.

The mystery is why. Given the number of African football players who have found success in foreign lands, it's clear that talent is not the issue. A clue comes from some of the teams in Brazil: Cameroon, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. These West African countries (along with Nigeria) dominate the continent in football, but not necessarily in anything else.

Pelé, perhaps the best football player of all time, who carried Brazil to three World Cup titles, famously predicted that an African team would win the tournament before the year 2000. Could 2014 finally be the year that Africa upends the European-South American duopoly? 

Despite the fact that there are many successful African soccer players, many of whom have become household names at Champions League teams in Europe, skepticism abounds over an African national team winning the World Cup. History suggests that when it comes to playing for their respective national teams, these football stars do not flicker as brightly as they do when playing for their club teams in Europe.

The mystery is why. Given the number of African football players who have found success in foreign lands, it’s clear that talent is not the issue. A clue comes from some of the teams in Brazil: Cameroon, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. These West African countries (along with Nigeria) dominate the continent in football, but not necessarily in anything else.

Cameroon, for example, is the commercial and economic leader in the region, although regional trade, especially with Nigeria, remains under-realized. The country is endowed with an abundance of natural resources, including in the agricultural, mining, forestry, and oil and gas sectors but have issues to develop these sectors, due to lack of investment and the level of corruption.

Like most of the West African teams, they have talent but not enough resources to build the adequate environment for the team. The reason is as simple as it is fundamental: their lack of access to finance, energy, education, health, water, shelter, security, and other vital necessities.

In my work, I travel into the developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and more recently Eastern Europe to help develop and harness local talent and resources by improving access. Without access to capital and other necessities needed to develop these talents, they could simply be laid to waste. 

The same is true in soccer. Talent alone cannot win games. Talent must be molded and refined in a system that can nurture and sustain it.  European and South American football teams have perfected this system — a well-oiled and well-financed system of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, and sports psychologists that not only have helped to develop the system but also sustain it today.  This system offers part of the access that a country like Cameroon lacks, in soccer as in the rest of its economy.

The other part comes from the lucrative financial incentives for performance. When the potential for income is taken away, so is the incentive to perform.  This in turn impacts morale, motivation, and results, and once again the matter circles back to the issue of access.

A wealthier country can offer its players more bonuses, sponsorships, and other perks as part of playing for the national team. But to become wealthy, a country like Cameroon needs access. Until it arrives, West African players will always be happier in their cushy European clubs than in the meager facilities of their homelands.

<p> Mallé Fofana is a partner and director at R.M.D.A., a Paris-based international development advisory firm, leading the Dakar office and covering West Africa. He was also a professional football player with Gorée, Jaraaf, and Senegal's national team. </p>

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