AFCON finally has African managers. But the rest of the world has not caught up

The Athletic
Cape Verde's players carry Cape Verde's head coach Pedro Leitao Brito (UP) as they celebrate after the victory at the end of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 round of 16 football match between Cape Verde and Mauritania at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan on January 29, 2024. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP) (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Jay Harris

Feb 2, 2024

Somebody had to pay the price for the Ivory Coast’s horrendous performance in the group stage of this Africa Cup of Nations.

The hosts beat Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in their opening game, but then lost 1-0 to Nigeria and imploded against Equatorial Guinea. The Ivorians were thrashed 4-0 in the latter match and manager Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked afterwards, even though they ended up progressing to the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides and are now in the quarter-finals having beaten holders Senegal in a penalty shootout under interim boss Emerse Fae.

Gasset, 70, is from France and has spent the bulk of his coaching career with clubs there before getting the Ivory Coast job in May 2022. So why did the Ivorians hire somebody with no prior connection to their country ahead of hosting AFCON for the first time in four decades?

Gasset was dismissed after Ivory Coast’s final group game (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Jose Peseiro and Rui Vitoria, the head coaches of Nigeria and Egypt respectively at this tournament, are from Portugal. Sebastien Desabre, another Frenchman, and Belgium’s Hugo Broos have guided DR Congo and South Africa respectively to this weekend’s quarter-finals, while the latter’s countryman Tom Saintfiet was in charge of Gambia for nearly six years before resigning after their group-stage exit.

Are European coaches genuinely better than African ones? Or are there other reasons why they are chosen for these posts?

AFCON head coaches
Djamel Belmadi
Pedro Goncalves
Burkina Faso
Hubert Velud
Rigobert Song
Cape Verde
Pedro Brito
Cape Verde
DR Congo
Sebastien Desabre
Rui Vitoria
Equatorial Guinea
Juan Micha
Equatorial Guinea
Tom Saintfiet
Chris Hughton
Republic of Ireland/Ghana
Kaba Diawara
Baciro Cande
Ivory Coast
Jean-Louis Gasset
Eric Chelle
Amir Abdou
Walid Regragui
Chiquinho Conde
Collin Benjamin
Jose Peseiro
Aliou Cisse
South Africa
Hugo Broos
Adel Amrouche
Jalel Kadri
Avram Grant

Eight of the 24 competing countries (33.3 per cent) at this Africa Cup of Nations had a European manager at the start of the tournament — that figure does not include Ghana’s Chris Hughton, an English-born former Republic of Ireland international with Ghanaian heritage. At the tournament’s 2017 edition, 12 of the 16 teams (75 per cent) were coached by people from outside Africa — 10 from Europe and one each from Argentina and Israel.

This is not a new phenomenon.

Frenchman Claude Le Roy had managed six African national teams — Cameroon (twice, originally for three years from 1985 and then at the 1998 World Cup in his homeland), Ghana, Senegal, Congo, DR Congo (also twice) and Togo. Gernot Rohr is technical advisor with Benin’s national team, who failed to qualify for this tournament, following spells coaching Nigeria, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Since its first edition in 1957, five French coaches have won AFCON — more than any other nationality. One of the five, Herve Renard is the only coach to win it with two different countries. Renard, who now manages the French women’s side, helped Zambia become African champions for the first time in 2012 in what was his second stint as their coach, then lifted the trophy again with Ivory Coast three years later. The 55-year-old has coached Morocco and Angola, too.

At the women’s World Cup last year, half of the four African sides taking part had foreign coaches — Randy Waldrum, from the United States, managed Nigeria, while France’s Reynald Pedros led Morocco.

But why?

Peter Alegi is a professor of history at Michigan State University in the U.S., where he teaches a variety of courses on African history. Alegi says there is a “long colonial history” to this trend.

“In the beginning, it was more understandable because coaches from Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium had the specialised knowledge,” Alegi tells The Athletic. “It was difficult to convince colonial officials to put a Black person in charge of a Black side because of the symbolism that might carry. They were concerned that if Africans started running their own football clubs, then what would prevent them from voting for political independence?

“A lot of Eastern European coaches came to Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. They brought fitness training to a level that not many African teams had. African football associations thought, ‘We don’t have time to develop this kind of sophisticated coaching, so let’s just buy the best’.

Mali coach Eric Chelle is enjoying an impressive AFCON, getting his homeland into the last eight (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the late 1980s, a lot of African governments were forced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to cut their social spending. (That means) Amateur football starts to fall apart and the facilities deteriorate. So what do African coaches do? They no longer have any training programmes or places where they can gain experience.”

In Europe, prospective coaches enrol on educational courses to improve their skills and the top rank of qualification is the UEFA Pro Licence. UEFA, European football’s governing body, established these programmes in 1998, while the Asian Football Confederation set up its Pro Diploma in 2001.

Morocco became the first African country to launch its own equivalent of a Pro Licence scheme, with help from the Confederation of African Football (CAF), in 2018. The first group of 23 coaches to study on the course graduated four years later.

CONMEBOL, the South American federation, reached an agreement with UEFA in December 2022 which means they mutually recognise each other’s coaching qualifications. CAF does not yet benefit from a similar arrangement. To put it simply, there has not been a consistent structure and framework for developing coaches across Africa compared to other continents.

Ndubuisi Emmanuel Egbo is Nigerian but studied for his coaching badges in Albania, where he had played during his career in the 1990s and early 2000s. Egbo made history in 2020 when he became the first African coach to win a European league title with Albanian side KF Tirana — although he only realised what he had achieved when Amaju Pinnick, the president of Nigeria’s Football Federation (NFF) at the time, phoned to congratulate him.

Egbo, 50, has watched from afar as Rohr and then Peseiro have been in charge of Nigeria’s national team since 2016, with a brief stint by the homegrown Augustine Eguavoen in between.

“The jobs should be going to African coaches because we know the culture and language,” Egbo tells The Athletic. “But we think European coaches are better. African coaches are given less money and if they don’t get the results, they will be sacked after two games.

“With a national team, you don’t train every day or every week. A coach needs time to create his own philosophy. Players come from different teams and systems and you cannot expect them to gel together within a month.”

Radhi Jaidi is the most-capped player in Tunisia’s history. After finishing his playing career with Southampton, then of the Premier League, in 2012, he started working within their academy and eventually became head coach of the club’s under-23s. He left in 2019 to manage a team in the U.S. second division and is now in a second spell as an assistant at Belgian top-flight side Cercle Bruges after being in charge of Tunisian club Esperance in the 2021-22 season.

Over the past 15 years, Tunisia have been managed by five local coaches (including two who have had the position twice) as well as six imports from Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, France (two) and Poland. Jalel Kadri, who is Tunisian, resigned from the job he’d held since 2022 last week after they finished bottom of their group at this AFCON.

“When you bring in a foreign coach with different views we give them support, but we are harsh on local coaches,” Jaidi says. “They understand and know the challenges of their country. We need leadership and owners to be patient.

“(Aliou) Cisse (Senegal’s head coach since 2015) has been under pressure at times but he also has support from people in key positions. They won AFCON in 2022 and have one of the best teams in the continent. They have stability.”

Philippe Troussier managed South Africa at the 1998 World Cup and Japan when they were co-hosts with South Korea four years later. Troussier left his native France in 1989 to lead Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas. Three league titles in as many years later, he was put in charge of the Ivory Coast national team. Now 68 and manager of Vietnam, he has coached Morocco, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, too.

“I know many local coaches who are capable of leading a national team,” Troussier says. “The problem is the neutrality a foreign coach brings. It is often easier to impose discipline and your philosophy. I have adapted each time to the nation I have managed and always create unity with the players.”

Emerse Fae is managing Ivory Coast since Gasset’s sacking mid-AFCON (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Sol Bamba won 46 Ivory Coast caps before retiring as a player at the end of last season and has first-hand experience of working under Renard. “He knows and understands the whole continent,” the former Leicester CityLeeds UnitedMiddlesbrough and Cardiff City defender told The Athletic in December. “He has been living in Africa for many years and his partner is Senegalese. He knows the culture, which makes a huge difference.

“If you’re a French manager who lives in Paris and you just turn up (to lead an African side) a week before the games, it won’t work. You need to know what the country and fans are all about, which is what Renard was best at.”

Renard has been successful and Broos won AFCON with Cameroon seven years ago and now has South Africa in the last eight, but lots of foreign coaches in Africa fail or do not hang around for long, with Gasset, who lasted only 17 games with Ivory Coast, being just the latest example.

Hakim Ziyech, Morocco’s star winger, briefly retired from international football due to a disagreement with their head coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, who is Bosnian. The homegrown Walid Regragui replaced Halilhodzic less than three months before the 2022 World Cup, recalled Ziyech and led Morocco to a surprise semi-final.

All five of the African teams competing at that tournament had locals in charge. At the previous World Cup in 2018, only two of the five African qualifiers’ managers were from those countries. Twenty years before, at France 98, all five had foreign managers.

Emerse Fae, in his first game as a senior head coach after stepping up from an assistant role, helped Ivory Coast knock out the defending champions Senegal on Monday evening. The 40-year-old former Nantes, Nice and Reading defender united the squad after a difficult week and achieved his aim of “rediscover(ing) ‘My Elephants (the team’s nickname)’.”

“If you have an African manager, it sends an important message to the next generation,” Bamba said. “I understand why European coaches were hired before, but now there are so many African coaches who have done all of their badges that you have no excuse. You need to give them the chance. Someone needs to break the ceiling.”

There is another element to this issue.

High-profile African former players are not being offered top club roles when compared to their European counterparts.

Frank Lampard has managed Derby CountyChelsea (twice) and Everton in recent years, without ever being an assistant first. His Ghanaian former Chelsea team-mate Michael Essien has never held the top job and is an assistant at Danish top-flight side Nordsjaelland.

Andrea Pirlo was named Juventus head coach in summer 2020 before he had even completed his UEFA Pro Licence course. Xavi Hernandez spent two seasons coaching in Qatar after retiring as a player in 2019, then got the Barcelona job. Ivorian Yaya Toure’s first coaching role was on the staff at Olimpik Donetsk in the top division of the Ukrainian league.

Without the requisite top-level experience, it’s difficult to imagine these ex-players successfully managing their national teams soon. Pitso Mosimane, who has led South Africa and won the African Champions League three times in his managerial career, told The Athletic in December that “Europe is not ready” for African coaches.

Kolo Toure, the former ArsenalManchester City and Ivory Coast defender, is one of the exceptions to the rule. After helping Scottish club Celtic and then Leicester win trophies as an assistant to Brendan Rodgers, Toure was ready to take the step up into management.

“It’s difficult as an African coach, for one reason: there aren’t many,” Toure says. “Right now, there are four Spanish coaches in the Premier League. Why? Because Pep (Guardiola) is doing well and so people think, ‘Let’s look at Spain’.

Y“When it comes to African managers, I was the first one in England. That’s why for me it’s important to keep going. As soon as I do well, the door will be open for others. You need an example. Even in Africa, they don’t believe in the coaches and don’t do as much to develop them.

“When I came to Arsenal as a player, nobody knew about Ivory Coast. Then I did well and (Didier) Drogba, Yaya, (Didier) Zokora, (Emmanuel) Eboue, Gervinho and (Salomon) Kalou followed. It takes one guy to change everything. I want to bring the reputation of African managers up. I feel a big responsibility — I love that and I want it.”

In November 2022, Toure left Leicester and became manager of Wigan Athletic, then in the second-tier Championship, on a three-and-a-half-year contract. He was sacked after two months having failed to win any of his nine games in charge.

“I was disappointed it didn’t work,” the 42-year-old says. “If you want to change the style of play, you need to give time to the manager. It was my responsibility to make it work and it didn’t — I accept that. If I were to do it again, I would be more cautious. I tried to change everything quickly — the system, the style. It was too much.”

Jaidi, 48, has been a manager in the U.S. and Tunisia but found it difficult to secure such a role in Europe.

“There are too many barriers,” he tells The Athletic. “I have applied for many jobs but I have never had a clear answer why I was not picked.

“We can bring an African player to Europe, but we can’t bring the coach. Why not? Are you telling me African players are naturally developed? No.

“Black coaches are not trusted because we don’t have a representative at the highest level. When Kolo got a job we were supportive, but they didn’t give him the right time to turn things around. Look at (Mikel) Arteta’s results at Arsenal in his first year.”

After Egbo left Tirana following a mixed start to the 2020-21 season, he took an extended break to recharge. When he felt ready to return, there was not much interest despite his historical feat.

“I was surprised,” Egbo, now in charge of Kosovan top-flight side FC Prishtina, says. “If I’m not an African coach, maybe the offers would be more frequent — that was my first thought.”

It is a complex issue with multiple layers. Some of the best players in the world are African, including Victor Osimhen and Mohamed Salah, but coaches from the continent are not getting the same opportunities to showcase their talent.

Mosimane, 59, had interest from teams in the U.S. but joined Saudi Pro League side Abha this week. Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena is one to keep an eye on after the 37-year-old won the 2022-23 South African Premier Division and then the inaugural African Football League (a new competition involving eight clubs, all from different countries) in November.

The successes of Cisse with Senegal and Morocco under Regragui will perhaps prompt other countries, and clubs, to rethink their approach. Their teams might have been eliminated from this AFCON early, but that should not detract from the work they have done to establish a clear playing style.

If Fae can maintain Ivory Coast’s resurgence and lead them to victory on home turf in the final next Sunday, it would send out a powerful message.

(Top photo: Delight for Cape Verde and homegrown head coach Pedro Brito after their round of 16 win over Mauritania; by Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

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