Africa: ‘Let Us Make Mistakes’ – Afcon Nations Finally Putting Trust in Native Coaches

The Africa Cup of Nations is about to start, with 15 of the 24 coaches native to the country they are leading. But even as recently as a decade ago, European coaches were still preferred by the national associations.

Many European coaches have made a name for themselves in Africa: the Frenchman Claude Le Roy, nicknamed “the White Wizard,” the German Winfried Schäfer, and more recently, Herve Renard, another Frenchman who won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with Zambia and Ivory Coast.

For the most part, native coaches have been forced to settle for interim positions, often being replaced before the major competitions came around.

“We felt powerless and hurt by these choices,” Mali’s national coach Mohamed Magassouba told DW. “To those above, we were not good enough to manage our national teams. No matter what we did, we were not supported.”

African coaches underrated

This lack of confidence in native coaches has often been explained through the prism of results. The statistics point slightly in favor of foreign coaches, but according to Magassouba this is misleading, with foreign coaches given more support and backing than their native counterparts.

“Expats have not won more competitions than native coaches. In addition, they have always had more financial help, and this has made their work easier,” he said.

Of the 32 editions of the AFCON since its creation in 1957, 15 have been won by native coaches. Of these, Charles Kumi Gyamfi of Ghana and Hassan Shehata of Egypt lifted the trophy three times each with their respective nations.

For some observers of African football, another reason that native coaches have been overlooked in favor of foreigners is a lack of ambition. Malian journalist Bakary Cisse, who has been covering sports for more than 20 years in the country, believes they have earned that reputation through their style of work.

“Native coaches in general are not respected,” he told DW. “Even when they have the required skills and the same qualifications as Europeans, they don’t take their opportunities when they get them.”

Mali leading strategic change

Coached by Magassouba, Mali will participate in this year’s AFCON which gets underway in Cameroon on Sunday, and have just qualified for the playoffs for the 2022 World Cup. Appointed initially as caretaker coach in 2017, Magassouba was given the job on a permanent basis in 2019.

His vast experience includes coaching Daring Club Motema Pembe during the 1990s, one of the most successful periods in the Congolese club’s history. As Mali’s national coach, he not only manages the senior team but all youth levels of the national setup. The cultivation of a clear identity for the national team is crucial to him.

“Since I took over, we have changed the mentality of the players based on the spirit,” he explained. “Then, we focused on how our players are developed to establish how we want to play.”

Native coaches are, in his opinion, the most qualified to understand how African players think and what they need to perform, and Mali’s approach has inspired other African football associations.

‘Through our mistakes … we will understand better’

The new policy of developing young coaches on the continent is a perfect example of this approach.

According to Pascal Yougbare, technical director of the Burkina Faso national team, the country has been “putting the focus on the development of native coaches for the past 10 years, with the support of FIFA and CAF.” What has changed is the “awareness of the country’s own potential and the need to develop local resources,” he said.