It’s never an African campaign at the Fifa World Cup, it seems, without at least one team being rocked by some scandal.
This time — thus far, anyway – it’s Cameroon who have had publicised issues, at Qatar 2022, with Andre Onana, the first-choice goalkeeper, being “temporarily suspended” from the squad (he has since left camp) over what has been described as a disciplinary breach, ahead of last Monday’s group game against Serbia.
The exact nature of the incident has been subject to interpretation, the most popular narrative being that Onana and the head coach, Rigobert Song, fell out over contrasting goalkeeping styles favoured by the two men, the latter apparently prescribing a more conservative and less adventurous approach for the Inter Milan player.
Onana, unwilling to budge, made his resistance known in no uncertain terms — too stubbornly, it appears, eventually leading to his banishment.
On the surface, this looks like a classic case of power play between a high-profile star and a coach whose own playing career was truly iconic— Song’s 137 caps are the most of any Cameroonian footballer, past or present — and has rightly earned him reverence in the central African nation.
Look deeper, though, and there is probably something else at play here — a culture clash.
You see, Song’s views on defending are rooted in a very different era — ‘old school’, if you’d call it that — when a defender was accustomed to doing little more than what they really had to; any significant movement upfield wasn’t exactly proscribed, but was typically reserved for when a set-piece came up and the attacking ranks needed to be boosted temporarily.
Goalkeepers, naturally, had even less reason to stray far from their area.
It’s why Rene Higuita, the fuzzy-haired Colombian goalkeeper with an eye for the spectacular and an appetite for wandering — his wanderlust sometimes taking him as far as the halfway line, usually just for the fun of it, occasionally at considerable cost — was deemed a hilarious oddity in his time.
The brilliant Cameroonian goalkeepers Song got to play with and observe from close quarters during his long international career — the likes of Joseph-Antoine Bell, Thomas N’Kono, Jacques Songo’o, and Carlos Idriss Kameni — certainly fit the profile of what a goalkeeper of that age was expected to be, more renowned for their ability with their hands than with their feet.
This, though, is a new age, one in which players must be good at more than just what the basic job description says.
A full-back, these days, is merely decent if they can only defend but can’t make attacking contributions; a defensive midfielder is valuable if they can not only break up the other team’s play, but also build up their own team’s; a striker could rack up pressing numbers all-season to compensate for not being able to hit double digits in goals; oh, and who wants a goalkeeper who can’t — ahem — dribble or lay on an assist?
That evolution has happened on the terms of European football — well, of course — with the continent’s pervasive influence creating a ripple effect felt worldwide, thus shaping the breed of footballer now deemed suitable and commercially viable.
Academies around the globe have come to appreciate that, for their products to be highly sought-after by clubs in Europe, the game’s supermarket, they need to be designed and manufactured to modern specifications.
Some of the best talent factories in Africa — the likes of Ghana-based Right to Dream, as well as Generation Foot and Diambars of Senegal — are revising their methods to fit the new demands, borrowing templates from those top European clubs who have led the way in this new direction.
Barcelona, the Spanish club where Onana finished his development after leaving his homeland while still in his early teens, is one of those leaders.
Onana’s time there — and a subsequent move to Ajax Amsterdam, another of the sport’s elite schools, where ball-playing skill is taught, honed and prized – helped mould him into the risk-taking goalkeeper he now is; the kind Song never really saw in Bell or N’Kono or Songo’o or even Kameni, the kind the dreadlocked 46-year-old clearly dreads.
It’s the sort of innovation those African coaches thoroughly familiar with football’s latest trends, like Ghana’s Otto Addo (who has spent the entirety of his post-playing life learning and working in Europe), would have few problems embracing.
Home-bred tacticians like Song, though, would have little option but to adapt sooner, if not later, in order to work successfully with the players at their disposal, particularly now that African countries are expressing an increasing desire to rope in eligible players who have grown up in the ways of European academies.
Onana may have lost this battle, but the war — this apparent clash of styles/cultures/generations — won’t, in the long run, be won by the Songs.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks