Sunday, 20 April 2014

Does world football really value African players?

Yaya Toure's comments earlier this week set the cat amongst the pigeons. He thinks he is not regarded as highly as other players because he is from Africa. This came on the back of similar comments from his team-mate Samir Nasri.

Some have viewed this as egotism - that, in their view, he isn't as good as he seems to think he is. Others have claimed that one only needs to look at the fawning of pundits every week on Match of the Day and from fans that he is highly appreciated. Toure, as it happens, acknowledged that the fans really did recognise him.

When people make points like this they assume they are disagreeing with one another - but they may not be. It may be that this is one of those rare occasions where everyone is right. They also miss the wider point that Toure was making that it isn't just him that he is being undervalued but, rather, that players from the African continent (and, I'd wager, particularly from West Africa) are generally undervalued.

(NB: Talking about Africa as a single entity is rarely a wise decision! In this instance, I'm taking Toure's views at face value i.e. that football doesn't view talent from anywhere in Africa in the same way they view talent from across South America or Europe. Clearly West Africa, in particular, has - in recent years - produced the most talent. East Africa - typically - has not produced a huge amount of footballing talent and neither has Southern Africa barring a few exceptions. The Northern African states - the Maghreb and Egypt - similarly suffer from the issues that Toure identifies e.g. they are not taken seriously by the wider footballing elite).

It may be that Toure is suffering from mild delusions of grandeur (he is, in my view, one of the top 10 or 15 players in the world but he probably isn't in the top three). It may be that many fans do recognise his ability. It may also be the case that football - generally - does not value African players as highly as it does European players or South American players. See? Everyone is right.

We know - from Kuper and Szymanski - that footballers from certain nations are over-valued in the transfer market (England, Holland and Brazil spring to mind). It shouldn't be too much of a leap of faith to think that individuals from elsewhere in the world, therefore, are under-valued because of where they are from. Brazil, and Brazilians, hold a special place in the hearts and minds of world football. No one ever looked stupid praising a Brazilian footballer or voting for him in an award.

Toure is, to an extent, hurt by the era he is playing in. Messi and Ronaldo are, at present, a cut above everyone else playing the game and there are a glut of superb players waiting in the wings for third place in the Ballon d'Or stakes (Ribery, Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Iniesta, Neymar et al). Indeed, some would say other midfielders are better than him (Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Busquets etc),

Consider those for a second more: Imagine if Busquets, Xavi, Schweinsteiger or Gerrard had had the season domestically that Toure is having: Third highest scorer in the league (from a deep-lying midfield position), the highest dead-ball conversion rate, the most passes, the most passes in the opposition half, the highest passing accuracy rate and the most goals from free kicks? Is it beyond the realms of possibility that such a level of performance from a European midfielder would get them into the top three of the Ballon d'Or? 

Looking at the FIFA World Player of the Year between 1991 (when it was established) until 2009 (it merged with the Ballon d'Or in 2010)

  • Only two players from the continent of Africa have finished in the top three (on three occasions): Weah won in 1995, he was runner up in 1996, and Eto'o was third in 2005.
  • During that time, England have had a third place in 1991 (Lineker), third place in 1996 (Shearer), two second places for Beckham (1999 and 2001) and a second place for Lampard in 2005.
  • The Netherlands had one winner (Marco van Basten, 1992) and two third places (Bergkamp in 1993 and 1997).
  • Non-Europeans won in 1994 (Romario), 1995 (Weah), 1996 (Ronaldo), 1997 (Ronaldo), 1999 (Rivaldo), 2002 (Ronaldo), 2004 (Ronaldinho), 2005 (Ronaldinho), 2007 (Kaka), 2009 (Messi).
Since the rules changed for the Ballon d'Or in 1995 (where non-Europeans could win the award):
  • Weah won in 1995. No other African was in the top three between 1995 and 2009
  • England had a third place in 1996 (Shearer), a third place in 1999 (Beckham), a winner in 2001 (Owen), and took 2nd and 3rd place in 2005 (Lampard and Gerrard).
  • Non-Europeans won in 1995 (Weah), 1997 (Ronaldo), 1999 (Rivaldo), 2002 (Ronaldo), 2005 (Ronaldinho), 2007 (Kaka).
And since the awards merged no African has been in the top three (though given the carve-up between Messi - three wins and one runner up - and Ronaldo - two runners up and one win this shouldn't be so surprising).

This doesn't prove anything though it does perhaps suggest that when players from certain backgrounds do well they are rewarded. There is, of course, an element of luck to this, and it may be that the really fine African players over the last twenty years have been unlucky to miss out. They may have peaked domestically in a year when (say) Spain won a major international trophy or, like Toure, they may have peaked at a time when numerous other players hit higher heights.

Others will point to the fact that African nations have not - typically - done well in the World Cup between 1990 and 2010. Quarter Finals for Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002), and Ghana (2010) being the furthest any African nation has got. People will point to this and say that in World Cup years it is understandable that African players are overlooked. That only, however, explains the World Cup years.

At the same time, good performances in the European Championships seem to help individuals into the top three whereas good performances in the Copa America or African Cup of Nations are not. When a player is named Copa America player of the year and also wins a major award it is usually down to some feat or other they have achieved in the domestic or European continental game.

Consider that since 1991, the only players who have won the Copa America player of the year and a major international award are two Brazilians playing for Barcelona (Ronaldo 1997, Rivaldo 1999). The other players who have won - Rodriguez, Goycochea, Francescoli, Guevara, Adriano, Robinho and Luis Suarez - weren't in the top 3 for either global award. Clearly - given what we know about representation in the lists of African players - this is also true of the African Cup of Nations most valuable player.

But win player of the tournament at the European Championships and you are pretty much bound to be in the top three of the big global awards: Sammer in 1996 (Ballon d'Or winner), Zidane in 2000 (Ballon d'Or runner up; Fifa World Player of the Year), Iniesta in 2012 (Ballon d'Or third place). The only two not to finish in the top three of a global aware were Zagorakis in 2004 and, astonishingly, Xavi in 2008.

I don't think Toure and Nasri's comments were controversial and, even if they are, sometimes controversy makes us consider an issue more deeply than we might otherwise.

Rightly or wrongly football does seem to treat African players differently. With African players - particularly West African players - certain attributes are disproportionately looked for and lauded: power, pace, strength etc. We know that European clubs have become fixated, in their West African scouting, on a particular type of player. This phenomenon is described by Tom Vernon - a fountain of knowledge on West African football - is the Papa Bouba Diop template. Having seen the success of the likes of Diop, Essien, Mikel et al means that scouts in Africa instinctively look for forceful holding midfielders. European clubs, therefore, overlook the next generation of players like Okocha, Abedi Pele et al to the point where such players barely exist at all or are not focused upon by the coaches in those nations.

Toure is a finer player than Diop, Essien or Mikel. He can do everything that they could do to a higher standard and rather a lot more besides. I wonder, however, if he is suffering from that typecast. African central midfielders are, so the story goes, powerful enforcers. Toure can be. But he also has superb vision, a wonderful range of passing and a cuteness to his play that few midfielders anywhere in the world enjoy.

Is Toure under-rated by the global game? I would say yes.

Two questions to finish on: If Drogba had been Dutch would he have won a major award? If Toure was Brazilian would he have done same? I can't help but feel the answer to both of those questions is yes.



dearieme said...

"he probably isn't in the top three": I'd put him behind Messi and Ronaldo, Suarez and Bale, just for starters.

Indeed, until he started making mistakes this season I'd have put Kompany ahead of him. Silva and Aguerro are worth mention too.

But I judge mainly by highlights; to judge a midfielder it's better to watch whole games, preferably at the stadium.

Abir said...

The last statement is true, because he would have done well in a World Cup or a European Championship. Admittedly, Afcon isn't taken very seriously, but the same goes for some other competitions outside Europe. It isn't just an African thing. I do agree that African footballers are somewhat undervalued, but there is no way he'd be the 'best midfielder in the world' if he weren't from Africa, as Samir Nasri had said to which Yaya Toure agreed.

dearieme said...

I always think a good way to start to rate players is to pick an EPL XI to play, say, a La Liga XI.

The EPL side would contain Toure but not Nasri. (And Suarez but not Rooney, etc, etc.)

Then, from your assembled XIs from the top leagues, assemble a World XI to play Mars.

Would Toure be in it? Very possibly, but you'd need to know more about international football than I do to go any further.

dearieme said...

I don't know about African players, but it does seem to have stopped valuing Scottish managers.

dearieme said...

Yup, the "leaks" were true. The ill-chosen one has been sacked. Poor old Moyes.

Metatone said...

I think you point to the nexus of the problem, but it's worth laying out.

Toure is a deep lying midfielder in part because of the way "the football world" has typecast African players.

How many deep lying midfielders get into the top 3 of the awards?

If Toure was Dutch or Brazilian or English, he'd have a Lampard like position in a team - and all those runs into the box for goal - imagine the goals Toure could score in that way! - would potentially put him into the top 3 for awards…

dearieme said...

"Toure is a deep lying midfielder": until later in the game when Pellegrini often moves him forward. You don't score with all those wonderful shots from a few yards outside the area unless you've moved forward to to a few yards outside the area.

dearieme said...

Replacing Moyes: the word on the street is that the smart money is on the dark horse.

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