Sean Jacobs
The New York Times

Something Remarkable Is Happening in African Football

Something exciting is happening in the World Cup: The five teams representing Africa in the tournament have African coaches.

This may not sound exceptional. Gregg Berhalter, who coaches the United States team, is a New Jersey native; Hansi Flick, who manages the German squad, hails from Heidelberg. But typically, African national teams have relied on European coaches — mostly unknown in their home countries, effectively mercenaries bouncing around the world — when big tournaments come around. If an African country hired an African coach, he would be summarily fired right before a big tournament, even if he took the team through the qualifiers.

Not this year.

Of the five African coaches, four made their careers in top-tier European football: Aliou Cissé was born in Senegal and Rigobert Song in Cameroon. But both made their careers in the English Premier League. Cissé immigrated to France when he was young. Song made his debut for the Cameroonian national team in the 1998 World Cup, but joined a French team shortly afterward before going on to England. Walid Regragui was born outside Paris, and played for a string of French teams before starting a coaching career in Morocco. Otto Addo, who is coaching the Ghanaian team, was born and grew up in Hamburg and played in the German Bundesliga. Only Jalel Kadri is a product of his home country’s leagues, having played and coached in Tunisia.

African football is discovering the power of the diaspora. Of course there’s a long history of the Black diaspora playing a part in events on the continent: Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian independence leader, incorporated pan-Africanist thought by way of America and Britain into his program when he took power in 1957. Since the era of democratization in the early 1990s, some African countries and their leaders — in Senegal and Ghana, for example — have been more open to the political and economic power and expertise of the diaspora beyond mere remittances.

That seems to have accelerated in the new century. And we are increasingly watching this kind of solidarity on the football field.

Take Cissé, the coach for Senegal. He has been at his coaching job the longest and is probably the most interesting of the lot. He was appointed in 2015 and coached Senegal in the 2018 World Cup, in which the team performed admirably well and was eliminated only on a bizarre technicality. Under him, Senegal won the 2022 African Cup of Nations.

But it’s not just his winning record that keeps Cissé in a job. Another reason for his longevity is that he understands the pressures of his players. He was captain of the last great Senegal team, the 2002 squad. That team shocked everyone at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan by beating the defending champion, France, in the opening match and making it as far as the quarterfinals.

Cissé understands that he derives his strength as a coach from his deep connection to Senegal. In an interview this year, he said, essentially, that people from the diaspora understand their home countries in a way that outsiders cannot. He cited technical and tactical expertise as crucial to successful coaching, but added: “It’s also important to know about the country’s past. For me, if you don’t know about the past, it’s difficult to talk about the future.”

The prominence of coaches like Cissé comes as African countries’ relationship with their diasporas is changing. There are now millions of African immigrants and their descendants in Europe. From Algerians who moved to France in the 1960s to near-daily arrivals of irregular African migrants in Italy today, Europe has been becoming Blacker for decades.

Even as these groups are integrated — and shape popular culture, politics, the economy and, of course, sports — many still maintain some allegiance to their ancestral homes and go back to visit regularly, send remittances and follow Moroccan or Cameroonian news as closely as they would in Marrakesh or Yaoundé. (Social media cements this relationship even further.)

But there is another important change underway, reflective of the rising power and relevance of Africa to Europe. African players are increasingly on the center stage of world football. Though African players have a long history in Europe, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that they began to star in the top leagues there.

At first, they were signed for their “speed” and “natural strength.” But coaches like José Mourinho and Roberto Mancini also appreciated their skill, leadership and smarts. Players like Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, John Obi-Mikel, Samuel Eto’o and Yaya Touré became global stars by the first decade of the 21st century. Sadio Mané of Senegal was a key part of Liverpool F.C.’s attack for years (and the team struggled after his departure for Bayern Munich). His national teammate, the defender Kalidou Koulibaly, captained Napoli before he moved to Chelsea.

Today, a majority of Africans — like most football fans across the world — follow the top European leagues. Football in this way cultivates a sort of pan-African identity, even if it is only for 90 minutes at a time. And there is a kind of continental solidarity that emerges for many African fans during the World Cup. If your home country’s team has made it, you first support it; when it gets eliminated, you support whichever African country is doing well. As the novelist Chimamanda Adichie put it during the 2010 World Cup, your “nationalism expands its boundaries as your country loses.”

The results after a week of matches have been mixed. Morocco and Senegal, after stumbling in their opening matches, have bounced back with convincing victories. Cameroon, Ghana and Tunisia have been less convincing. But as Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia or Germany’s to Japan remind us, the World Cup can be full of surprises.

No team from Africa has yet made it beyond the quarterfinals of the World Cup. But I and the millions watching across the continent this year are cheering on these new head coaches, and hoping for the impossible.

The New York Times