AFRICAN FOOTBALL HAS A ‘VICTIM’ PROBLEM
There was more than mild amusement in the footballing community when it was announced that Liverpool had recruited Thomas Gronnemark, a throw-in coach, to their coaching set-up at the start of the 2018/19 season.
The fissure between the “old” ways, embodied by a good majority of the footballing media, and the “new”, typified by individuals by Groenemark and derided by the former group as all that has gone wrong with the game today, is the epistemological divide across which both sides hurl missiles and arguments.
It seemed ludicrous: the mechanics of a throw-in are simple enough to grasp, and players are versed enough in the technique that being cited for a foul throw is something of an embarrassment. Also, besides the projectile’s weaponization as a chaos agent – and the long throw can be developed by practice anyway, without the need for a specialist coach – it serves little purpose. It is simply a means to reintroduce the ball into play.
Was it then a superfluous appointment, another sign of modern football’s obsession with controlling every aspect of the game?
While no one is laughing at Liverpool now, following their UEFA Champions League triumph and their record points-haul for a runner-up in Premier League history, the jury on the efficacy of Gronnemark’s work is still very much out. However, it is instructive in that it highlights a certain mindset, as well a lesson Africa would do well to learn: the importance of striving for even the most marginal gains, of wringing every dribble of utility out of a scenario; of proactivity.
There was much furore on Monday night over the decision of the referee to order a penalty re-take in the FIFA Women’s World Cup match between Nigeria and host France. The initial spot-kick had seen Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie fall foul of the “new” (it is, in actuality, simply emphasizing an extant law) laws of the game regarding goalkeeper conduct on penalty kicks, stepping off the goal line with both feet.
The responses were, predictably, emotional. The context further facilitated that reaction: Nnadozie, 18, had been impressive in goal, emblematic of a plucky – if somewhat limited – showing by the Nigerian side, who needed a draw to seal a place in the Round of 16.
The incident awakened a deep paranoia, and so became the latest exhibit in the bulging case file of iffy calls against African sides and/or in favour of host countries at major tournaments.
Now, it is important to point out that some of the evidence is compelling. The ‘Shame of Gijon’ in 1982 marked a turning point in the organization of tournament football; Cameroon had a goal ruled out for a non-existent infringement in their 1998 World Cup match against Chile, where a win would have seen them advance; and four years after, Korea Republic progressed all the way to the semi-final of the World Cup on the back of appalling refereeing performances in both the Round of 16 and the quarter-final.
So no, this is not an attempt to insinuate that these conspiracy theories have no basis whatsoever. However, it is important to separate that from what this was: a simple case of the Laws of the Game being implemented dispassionately, as they always should be.
It is, of course, easier to allude to a conspiracy than to look inward. All participating teams at the ongoing Women’s World Cup were advised that this particular infraction would be scrutinized more keenly, and so cannot rightly plead ignorance.
The question then is: did the Nigerian coach(es) work with the goalkeepers to prepare for this new reality? Did they give young Nnadozie, whose performances have captured the popular imagination, as well as the hearts of the world, the best platform to succeed?
This feeds into a wider concern, and that is the manner in which African football interacts with change.
The common refrain on Monday night was that such a call would not have been given against a European nation. That, however, misses the point: the Laws of the Game are neutral, and the letter of it was transgressed. Unless, of course, the insinuation is that the amendments to the Laws were made specifically to trip up African sides.
Preposterous as that reads, it is not an unpopular sentiment, even among the most learned. The real problem is of an inward nature: Africa(ns) are reactive, rather than proactive, in their response to change.
These new Laws were ratified three months ago and were instituted on June 1. Incidentally, the Penalty Law was not the only one that got updated; attacking players can now no longer disrupt the defensive wall on free-kicks, and there has been a change regarding goal-kicks and free-kicks inside the penalty area.
That latter change, in particular, opens up new possibilities for teams that seek to play short-passing, possession football out from the back, as their defenders can now be inside the penalty area and receive short passes from their goalkeeper, while the opponent must remain outside the area until the ball is “in play”.
The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in three days. Have the coaches of the 24 participating teams given a great deal of thought to how they can use this change to their advantage? More pertinently, have they proactively worked it into their preparation for the tournament?
That, really, is the challenge that change presents. In and of itself, change is mostly neither positive nor negative; it is simply constant. For the proactive, it represents opportunity; for the reactive, it represents punishment.
There is a comfort in playing the victim that Africa, with its reactivity, has come to embrace.