The AFCON knockout stages are upon us, having started with Morocco’s shock elimination on penalties against Benin on Friday. After a busy week completing his move to Romanian champions CFR Cluj, ex-Mali captain Yacouba Sylla shares his experiences with Get French Football News once again. This week, he discusses the influence of foreign managers on African national teams.
Since we last spoke there have been many big games and now the bracket seems quite exciting, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. There’s especially Mali vs Côte d’Ivoire, a West African derby. A win for Mali would be huge in this game. Believe me, if we beat them it will be a greater achievement than winning AFCON. Seriously, that’s how we feel. If we beat them the players can return as heroes.
One of the big surprises is Madagascar: what an achievement!
With the new format this is more likely to happen: countries have a better chance of qualifying for the tournament and there are more opportunities. If they have made it this far today, it’s because they deserve it, that’s clear. They have respectable players in good leagues, like all African countries nowadays. Maybe a few play in strange places or are unemployed, but this competition is respectable with good players everywhere.
They did finish first, beating Nigeria…
Yes, that’s true… They put the A/C on Nigeria. Let’s not take it away from them.
Inversely, Nigeria have looked a little worrying, no?
You know what’s happening? The teams that play nasty football are going to make it through. Like Benin, they have yet to win one match (in 90 minutes )and they’re in the quarter-finals. It’s like Portugal when they won the Euro.
Nigeria is one of many teams with a foreign manager, Gernot Rohr. How do you consider his role in their current performances?
The way I see it is that Nigeria needs some refreshment. It’s a team that has been built around the same core for around four years, and they need to change a little and inject some new players. With all due respect to him, when you see that John Obi Mikel is still present… You need the motivation to change. I understand, some have been in the team a long time and won, it’s becoming a little bit routine while the other teams are progressing.
When a foreign manager takes over a national team, not necessarily being familiar with the local league or national pool of players, what sort of efforts do they put in to finding these new players?
Firstly, it depends on the competence of the manager. There’s also a role to be played by the FAs, when they hire the manager. You have to decide on a work ethic with him, so that he is not content with just doing what he is told. Today, a national team manager’s job is to observe, go and watch three or four matches per week, here and there. You have collaborators, you speak to coaches, it is an in-depth job.
It’s not just preparing the international break, it’s identifying a core and a group which you can lean on, but also have alternatives. Get to know the players and their profiles better. On the other hand, there are coaches who, with all due respect, need to be changed. In all honesty, they need change.
Do some have free passes based on their experience, reputation?
No it’s not a question of free passes. But everyone can evolve in the way they work, and to do this you need to be honest and have a project for the team. If you leave the person without agreeing on a line to follow, that person might hit obstacles. You can’t apply the same philosophy in different national teams, unlike clubs.
Each national team has players of distinct origins, character, and you have to adapt to this. Adaption is the key word for national team managers. You have to familiarise yourself with the country, the customs. You can’t come from, for example, Spain, and say, “I’m going to do like in Spain”. It won’t work. You have to understand the players. Once you’ve adapted, earned their trust, you can implement your philosophy. They need to follow, otherwise the coach loses.
The coach needs to adapt, but FAs also want to bring in foreign managers for them to bring something new?
Yes, at every change you hope for a novelty to arrive. A freshness, to re-boost your project or restart. It’s normal. I think what matters when a coach takes over a national team is not a question of name or experience but of intelligence. You need to adapt to your group. If you look at Uganda’s coach (Sébastien Desabre), you see that he has implemented a philosophy, you see how they play. It’s a nice team to watch. And this coach had worked in Côte d’Ivoire, in other African leagues.
He adapted and imposed his philosophy. Then you have local coaches, like in the case of “General” Aliou Cissé (Senegal), who has earned respect for his playing career in Europe and his many caps in the national team. Then you have the DRC’s coach (Florent Ibengué), and he has an African idea. With his knowledge, it worked for a while, even though now they are starting to struggle a bit. A European coach will automatically bring a certain experience, a certain rigour, that others don’t have because they have stayed in Africa and only seen this.
You speak of experience, but in cases like Desabre, Nicolas Dupuis (Madagasar), or Sébastien Migné (Kenya), they barely coached in Europe or at best in lower leagues and now find themselves in charge of a national team. Experience is not necessarily a criterion.
If we speak of experience we can speak of Claude Le Roy, who has seen it all. He coached many African countries (including Senegal, Cameroun, Ghana…); he is an African globetrotter. At the moment it’s a little more difficult. For Uganda or Kenya, these are coaches who are not well-known but you can only applaud their work. They have brought their teams to a certain level, and you have to respect that and give them that chance, that time to work.
Le Roy made a career out of coaching African national teams.
He likes it. You have to respect that. Some managers work better in the framework of a national team. Like Hervé Renard: he tried in clubs (Sochaux, Lille), but quickly saw that he wanted to stay in national teams in Africa. Each has his own career plan. It’s like players: some want to stay in Europe, others like moving around and look further. It depends on the cases, and the opportunities you get.
How do you explain the success Renard has had with his national teams (Champion of Africa with Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire)?
He is a man-manager. He brought his own style. And he worked hard, he couldn’t have been champion with Zambia without it. Even with Côte d’Ivoire, it had been a long time since they had won it. There is no luck with these things. He went to the World Cup with Morocco, that’s not random. Now they lost to Benin, that’s life, it’s football. But his success is deserved, and he knows how to unite players around him.
As often, there are many French coaches in this AFCON, and not only in francophone countries as we mentioned with Uganda and Kenya. How do you explain such a large contingent?
I don’t know if there is an explanation. Often national FAs think these coaches are experienced based on their past in Europe. It’s true that the best training for coaches and players is in Europe. But there are prejudices. You can have African coaches with talent who don’t get their chance because of this expectation. It’s a generalization to say that Europe is the best place for players and coaches.
There’s another interesting example in Cameroon, with Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert. Neither is very experienced as a coach. What do you think of their gamble to go do this together in Cameroon?
We’ll see in the end. You pay the musicians after the show. They were great players who made their mark in football history, we’ll see what becomes of them as coaches.
You yourself have known three foreign coaches at the head of Mali: Patrice Carteron (2013), Henryk Kasperzcak (2013-15), and Alain Giresse (2015-17). What personal touch did each bring?
Carteron was the first to call me but he shortly left for TP Mazembe, so I didn’t really get the chance to know him. Kasperczak trusted me from the start, and he brought his own vision. He implemented pressing. Giresse is someone who knows Mali very well, because he had coached them until 2012. He wanted to return but it didn’t go well with the FA leadership. He deserved better, because he is honest and you can see that today with Tunisia giving him the job, trusting him. He is someone who managed Senegal, not small countries. I think he brought stability to Mali, but FAs just do whatever they want.
Tunisia struggled in the group stage, with 3 draws. What next, against Ghana?
They are a country who will expect to win. The result might not be there in the end, but they would be disappointed to lose in the round of 16.
To finish off, earlier this week you completed your move to Cluj. Your new manager is former Chelsea player Dan Petrescu. How much have you talked to him? Do you like his project?
He is a coach who knows what he wants, he has nothing to prove. He is a frank person, who likes winning and is used to it. He works hard and I look forward to getting to know him better.
What is your objective with your new club?
I never speak of objectives. Only the pitch’s truth will speak. Speaking beforehand is useless, it won’t help.