Composite: AFP/Getty Images; AP
A few years ago, one of the greats of African football invited me to his home for dinner. While his wife grilled fish and plantains, we watched Sunderland beat Arsenal in the FA Cup. Gradually, various former players began turning up. As they talked, it slowly dawned on me they were plotting a coup against the president of their country’s football federation.
One of the biggest problems, I was told, was that the sports ministry paid the salary of the national coach but had little idea about football. The federation, like many others, had realised that if they nominated a European, the salary would be higher; the higher the salary, the more there was to be creamed off. Hence the fleets of journeymen Frenchmen in African football.
Related: Cameroon’s new generation aim to ‘create own history’ against Nigeria
That is not to say European coaches were, or are, necessary bad for African football. Some – such as Hervé Renard, Claude Le Roy and Winfried Schäfer – have been obviously beneficial. The Belgian Tom Saintfiet resigned as coach of the Gambia after their group-stage exit at the Africa Cup of Nations this week but he has done a remarkable job in twice leading the Scorpions to the finals when they had never previously qualified.
Nor is to say that every underwhelming appointment of a European by an African nation is necessarily corrupt: sometimes federations are just unimaginative. But after a remarkable first two weeks at Afcon, which produced not merely the best football seen at the competition this century but also extreme drama, it does feel as though a wind of change is blowing through the continent.
Of the 24 sides, only three had a coach with solely French nationality. To put that into context, 27% of coaches at the previous 10 tournaments were French. There were three in Cameroon in 2021 as well. The last time there was a lower proportion was in South Africa in 1996.
It may not be entirely mischievous to suggest the more progressive football of the group stage is a result, as the influence of the thinking of Aimé Jacquet and Didier Deschamps wanes and coaches prioritise winning and what is best for their nations, rather than avoiding the sort of defeat that can taint a CV.
All three sides with French coaches reached the knockouts but none have covered themselves in glory. The 64-year-old Hubert Velud, whose Burkina Faso came second in their group behind Angola, has fared best. This is his 22nd job in management and his third African nation. As coach of Togo, he was shot in the arm in a terror attack shortly before the 2010 tournament in Angola. Sébastien Desabre, whose Democratic Republic of Congo drew all three group games, is 47 years old but is on his 15th job and his second with an African nation.
But the one who fared worst was the 70-year-old Jean-Louis Gasset, a former assistant coach with Paris Saint-Germain and France. He was sacked by the hosts after Ivory Coast’s opening win over Guinea-Bissau was followed by a pair of defeats. Chasing a goal when behind against Nigeria, Gasset kept throwing on forwards, leading only to congestion against a deep-lying 5-4-1. In similar circumstances against Equatorial Guinea, Gasset came up with a similar solution and on that occasion his side suffered a complete tactical and temperamental breakdown as they collapsed to a humiliating 4-0 defeat.
After an attempt to borrow Renard from France Women was rebuffed, the former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé, who has no managerial experience, has taken interim charge for Monday’s last-16 tie against the defending champions, Senegal.
It is Senegal, by far the best side in the group stage, who seem to offer the model. Since taking charge in 2015, Aliou Cissé, as well as bringing continental success, has twice qualified for the World Cup. He stands as the leader of a wave of coaches brought up in European academies who have then taken that experience back to their national teams.
Related: Ivory Coast sack Gasset before sneaking into last 16, while Ghana axe Hughton
Djamel Belmadi quit as Algeria coach after their group-stage exit but, while staleness had set in, his achievement in winning the Cup of Nations in 2019 cannot be overlooked. Walid Regragui’s Morocco, who in Qatar became the first African side to reach the semi‑final of the World Cup, probably represent the greatest threat to Senegal.
Or take Amir Abdou, coach of Mauritania. He was born in Marseille and has joint French-Comorian citizenship. The 51-year-old was coach of Comoros for eight years, leading them to a first Cup of Nations qualification in 2021 and their fabled victory over Ghana. Now he is overseeing an even more remarkable story.
In 2011, Mauritania fell to 207th in the world rankings. They had been forced to withdraw from the Cup of Nations qualifiers the previous year. Then Ahmed Yahya took over as federation president. With their €10m funding from the Fifa Goal Project, they revamped the national stadium, built a modern headquarters and established an academy (they’ve released a promotional video with incongruously bombastic music that at one point focuses, bafflingly to an outsider, on what appears a blank wall; then you realise they’re showing off the air-conditioning unit, a detail poignant in demonstrating just how bad facilities used to be and how far they’ve come). Mauritania have qualified for three successive Cup of Nations and, last Tuesday, against Algeria, the 2019 champions, recorded their first Afcon victory to qualify for the last 16.
They face Cape Verde, a familiar presence at the Cup of Nations over the past decade, but that should not deflect from how extraordinary it is that a nation of 500,000 so regularly bloodies the noses of the established powers. Their rise has largely come under coaches who have not had the benefit of an upbringing in European academies: first the air‑traffic controller Lúcio Antunes and now the combative former defender Bubista.
Half the coaches who started the tournament were managing their own nations, a proportion that has remained steady across the previous two tournaments as well. (By contrast, three sides at the Asian Cup have “home” coaches.) That has to be a positive sign for the African game and it seems to be producing better football as well. For the rumpled French journeyman, though, the night draws in.