Sunday, June 13, 2010
Any Cook Can Coach
By Biko Agozino
This title was suggested by the title of an essay by CLR James on politics in the Caribbean in which he argued, following Athenian democracy, that ‘Every Cook Can Govern’. However, the institution of slavery in Athens, the fact that Athens had a war-mongering monarchy that oppressed philosophers, and the fact that women and children did not have the rights of citizenship meant that Athens was deeply flawed as a model of participatory democracy. The unfitness of Athens as a role model is particularly so for people of African descent who suffered centuries of chattel slavery, colonization and disenfranchisement, and who have also retained radically republican democratic traditions of the sort that anthropologists dubbed headless or acephalous societies. In his recent Nyerere Lecture, Wole Soyinka concluded that one such society, the Igbo, is a good model for the rest of Africa.
Walter Rodney identified such village democracy types of society in his Groundings with My Brethren as true of the majority of cultures in Africa and warned against using the few monarchical traditions, just like monarchical Athens, as a model amplified and made the hegemonic representation of a supposedly monolithic African culture. This is not only in Africa but also in the Diaspora where music genres created by Africans tend to have Kings and Queens of each genre despite the tendency towards democracy in the African worldview and struggles.
Nevertheless, the historical-material ist critique of elitism in politics by James could be extended to the colonial mentality in sports by which we are made to believe that only elite coaches from elite countries with elite pay could coach the teams of poor countries. The Wall Street Journal recently asked whether African teams could not be coached by African coaches given that all but one of the African teams participating in the World Cup in South Africa have foreign coaches, including some that never coached a world cup squad or failed to qualify for the competition as their own nations’ football coach? The answer to the question is that any cook can coach although the journal quoted some Nigerians as saying that the players will respect a white coach more than a Nigerian coach. The fact remains that even European national teams also hire foreign coaches and maybe someday, an African would coach a European team.
What are the lessons that we could learn from the poor performance of our teams that are full of talents and what is the way forward for sports and the nation for the national team could be a metaphor for the nation with enormous resources largely controlled by good ‘coaches’ but with mediocre results to show for it all? My twelve year old nephew once asked me, ‘Uncle, I am happy that Essien scored one of the goals at the African Nations Cup because I am a Chelsea fan but I cannot believe that the Super Eagles were beaten by a ten-man Black Stars team. What happened?’ Here he was demonstrating what James would see as the Athenian democratic principle by which the audience voted on the plays to select winners during festivals even if some of the winning poems openly mocked the then rulers like King Pericles. I explained to the young boy who already plays in a junior football club in London that it could be that our talented players played like individuals and not like a team. He asked me to explain that to him.
I explained that although I am not good at football, I have had the experience of coaching children in league tournaments when my two sons were involved in youth soccer in the US. I asked my nephew to watch all the goals scored in the English Premier League and tell me what he learned from the skills. He simply told me that they were great goals. I told him to look more closely and he gave up, asking me to explain the skills necessary for scoring goals to him.
The skills are very simple. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea use these skills all the time to dominate the top league. The teams that do not use the skills are the ones that struggle in the league. Steven Garrald ignores this principle frequently as he tries individual play to the disadvantage of Liverpool FC. Ghana used the skill to score the winning goal in the quarter finals match during the Nations Cup when Agogo tapped in that square cross with eight minutes to go. It is called team work as opposed to talented but selfish waste of energy. This is how it goes:
A player runs at the goal with the ball and pretends that he is about to strike at goal. The goalkeeper and the defense all focus on blocking his shot but at the last second, he dummies and passes the ball to an unmarked team mate who stabs the ball into the net. That is simple and it works most of the time. The inadequacy of it explains the weakness of our Super Falcons and Super Eagles but also super corporations and super states alike.
The struggling teams are those in which the attackers are so full of confidence that they think that they could dribble past every opponent but they almost always lose the ball after skipping past a few defenders. If they manage to bulldoze through the defense repeatedly, they suffer recurrent injuries as a result, like Ronaldo, Rooney, Yorke, Gerrald and Maradona. England was dominating the USA until the introduction of Wright-Phillips who dribbled and dribbled instead of crossing the ball in as expected from the wings.
My nephew nodded in agreement and told me that his coach never told him that. He wanted to learn more skills from me. He stood up and started dancing around an imaginary football to show off his own youthful skill as if imitating one of his heroes, JJ Okocha. Forget Okocha, I told him. You want your team to win games not just to show off your personal entertainment skills. Argentina dominated the opening match against Nigeria with short passes while the Super Eagles tried long shots, possessive dribbling and weak shots that were nowhere near the goal when they could have touched the ball once to control it and then pass it to a team-mate in an open position to score!
The skill that is applied at the goal mouth to score goals is also the skill that is applied in the midfield to keep control of the ball. The top teams have perfected this skill. It is called one-two touch football. The first touch is to control the ball and the second touch is to pass it to a teammate in a better position. As soon as you pass the ball, you run into an open position ready to receive it back. That is called teamwork, I told the young man. If you play selfishly in any successful team, you will be lucky if you sit on the reserve bench at all, you would be soon dropped, sold or traded before you know it. Tarves is still wondering why Manchester Untied sold him but he tends to keep the ball to himself for too long whereas Messi has mastered the solo run that is intended to end in a one-two with a team mate. Many politicians ignore this rule of teamwork by seeking tenure elongation and sitting tight when they should be passing the ball in the interest of the national team or even take a recovering position after they have lost the ball to the other team.
France took this team skill to a higher level during the World Cup in Germany by using a one-touch method that made the games much faster. That is, the first touch was to pass the ball or strike at goal. Unfortunately for them, this led to too many inaccurate passes or shots wide off the mark although it helped Henry to stab in the winning goal against Brazil in the semi final but ultimately failed against Italy in the final match. France used the same tactic of fast-paced one-touch French-kicks in their opening match against Uruguay and were lucky to get a goalless draw. So I would still recommend the one-two method any day because by the third touch, you have given the opponents time to anticipate your move and block it and with only one touch you do not give your teammates enough time to anticipate your move and position themselves. Argentina used this a lot especially in the midfield and Nigeria appeared clueless a lot during that opening match in Johannesburg.
My fascinated young nephew told me that sometimes it is necessary to run at the goal and try to score when you see an opening like Drogba, Adebayor, Messi, Henry or Ronaldo or simply send a salvo at goal with your first touch like Kanu’s trickish surprise shots that sometimes zip out from behind him with a flick of the leg or Gerrald’s long distance shots for Liverpool and for England. I agreed with him but insisted that such moments are rare and that teamwork is the best guarantee of success as both Kanu and Gerrald prove by also being selfless playmakers of note with records of many assists, earning them captaincies. The goal by Argentina from a corner kick was a sign of teamwork as the attackers distracted the Nigerian defence and pushed them back towards goal to allow a free header to the scorer, prompting Efan Ekoku, the commentator and former Nigerian international to criticize the Nigerian players for ball watching and failure at school yard defense principles that frown at free headers.
‘Uncle, teach me more skills please’, he pleaded. Well, this one is an elementary skill, I told him. I told him to touch the ball, kiss the ball, hug the ball and tell me what it felt like. He said that it felt normal. Exactly my point. The ball does not bite, it has no claws like a lion and it is not hot like coal. So when next you are in a wall defending a free kick from the likes of Bekham or Messi, keep your eyes on the ball and do not get scared of the ball the way most defenders instinctively do. If you keep your eyes on the ball, you improve your chances of stopping the free kick successfully but jumping aimlessly just allows the free kick to be bended over the wall and into the net before the goalkeeper sees it, blinded by the unnecessarily scared-like- hell wall.
The young boy protested that he would never stand in the way of a shot from some of the top scorers because such scorchers could maim a man or a woman for that matter. Wrong, I told him, it is always a lump of leather filled with air and if you keep your eyes on it, you stand a better chance of avoiding having it slammed into your closed eyes to knock you down or having it slammed into your pants, causing clutching pain.
‘Oh uncle, tell me more because I want to play for the Eagles when I grow up, I will be too ashamed to play for England because I see myself as a Nigerian,’ he stated. Well, I told him, if you play for Nigeria, you will become a national hero and the country would reward you with cash and give you houses in choice plots. He licked his lips in anticipation. But you must start practicing teamwork now by helping more around the house, ironing your own clothes, clearing the table and sweeping the house as a team player, I told him. He said that he already ironed his own clothes.
My final tip for success is related to the previous one but it is mainly for the goal-keeper. The goalie must not panic at the sight of a striker because the shot is never going to be a thunderbolt or a bullet, just a lump of leather filled with air although most goalkeepers who panic are less scared of the ball and more anxious not to mess up. We saw this in the courage of Enyeama who single-handedly denied Argentina the chance to humiliate Nigeria with more goals. The Under 17 Nigerian goalkeeper who helped to win the World Cup for Nigeria by saving more penalty kicks than the French goal-keeper also practiced this. He said back then that what helped him was the secret verses from the Koran that he was chanting. This is an indication that he had such strong faith that nothing the attackers could throw at him would hurt him because, they could not shoot cannons, only balls of leather, Insha Allah. So the young man did not dive blindly, hoping to gamble correctly as most goal-keepers do. He waited for them to kick the penalty and then he dived to stop it! That was how Ghana scored from the spot against the Serbian goalie who dived first in Pretoria, to give Africa the first win in the first World Cup on African soil.
To inculcate these simple teamwork skills, we need to watch what other footballing nations are doing. They start training teams from age four and keep exposing them to team competitions from that age on. Mikel Obi was probably referring to the lack of team spirit when he said that there was no love among the Eagles players in Ghana. Everyone wanted to be the hero that saved the nation, it seemed. The answer is not in a foreign coach because no coach can teach the team spirit if you have been brought up all your life to hustle selfishly for everything as many children grow up to be due to poverty-induced hoarding tendencies or due to undeserved sense of a privileged right to greed born of unearned affluence.
The team spirit goes with sportsmanship such that when you lose, you do not lose the lesson. We need to congratulate the successful teams that beat us and wish them all the best because the better teams won the matches instead of trying to use bribery or intimidation the way some of our politicians do after losing elections. The Trinidadian social theorist, CLR James, in Beyond a Boundary, credited the game of cricket with his moral upbringing in the sense that he never tried to cheat or whine or complain, saying well played to the winners but did his best and did not gloat even in victory, telling the losers better luck next time.
He may have been exaggerating his obedience to the rules of game theory given that he was an activist transgressional radical who overstayed his visa in America by many years and had to be detained and deported after he appealed unsuccessfully. However, I have always thought that James’ moral and intellectual character could be attributed more to his African cultural background of radical republican democracy but proof of that is disappearing due to the legacies of slavery and colonialism which have sadly eroded much of our cultural values and replaced them with dog-eat-dog dodgy capitalist perversions by those that Fanon called the phantom bourgeoisie in The Wretched of the Earth that mimics the bullishness of the metropolitan bourgeoisie with little of its fanatical patriotism.
As Nyerere would recommend with the Ujamaa philosophy of familihood that he found common in Africa, we need to recover our sense of communal morality and rejoice and celebrate the fact that West Africa has produced some of the best teams consistently in the continent. If we have been doing so without any organized training from an early age, imagine what would happen if all over Africa, the 54 states start youth sports programs in football, baseball, lawn tennis, basket ball, cricket, tracks and all manner of sports and games with annual leagues. Our raw talents would be polished and we will shine again and again in all sporting activities and sooner win the World Cup or Wimbledon and still allow individual talents to emerge and flourish.
Such programs could also contribute to poverty eradication in Africa when the individual players become big on the world stage and earn enough to uplift their extended families at least. But beyond monetary gains, the training in team spirits could contribute to nation building and entrepreneurial success as we begin to see the bigger picture of ourselves as members of one family, club, national and international teams as players but sometimes even as supporters. Together Each Achieves More = TEAM
We can apply the same team principles to all athletics by sponsoring athletics clubs across the country with private companies partnering the government. The shame of returning from the World Athletics Championships empty-handed must come to an end. The aim of winning four medals at the next Olympics is too criminal for contemplation when a small country like Jamaica hauls in medals in double digits. Let us aim for 100 medals and start training teams of individuals with targets of breaking existing world records in every sport. Let us aim at going to the Tennis Grand slams to challenge the Russians and the Americans for the championships in ladies and men’s events. This way, we will give our restless youth something positive to focus on. When they know that Kenyans and Ethiopians win up to a million US dollars just for running a marathon, no one would be able to stop them from dominating that sport if we train them.