Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The African Footballer of the Year - 8th edition. An interesting classification, providing some understanding of African football, but also darkening it. So far, no player won the prize twice. Only two players appeared more than once among the top three – the Cameroonian Roger Milla (2nd in 1975 and 1st in 1976) and Guinean Papa Camara (second in 1976 and 1977). With the exception of the very first winner, Salif Keita, there was not a single European-based professional player. The absence of professionals and the high turn-over suggests raw talent a plenty. It also suggests raw talent and nothing more... players popped in, but somehow depended only on talent, and therefore unable to sustain, let alone improve, their performance. Almost nobody interested European clubs and none of the winners became recognizable star (Keita was already famous in 1970, fading after that, and Milla became a star after the end of the 1970s). Clearly, European-based players were ignored, which casts some doubt of the true qualities of the African players. There were objective factors, limiting choice: African journalists saw little of most players - mostly they knew their own country's players. Few international games, Internet was not even a dream – television was a dream, but whatever TV existed, it covered little football. Most often good players were not seen at all outside their own country. Subjectivity and bias ruled African voting more than anywhere else on top of everything. It may appear strange, but perhaps best known outside Africa players in the 1970s, and one of the best all-time Cameroonian footballers – Jean Manga-Onguene – so far did not appear among the top three. Was African football that rich on talent to make voting constantly changing and introducing new names? Hardly, if compared to stable professionals in Europe, who did not make the lists: was, say, Paris SG, so stupid a club to keep unheralded Mustapha Dahleb, but not to hire Papa Camara? Anyway, there was new winner again in 1977 – and the interesting thing about it was that the top African clubs of this year were not represented. Only Papa Camara (Hafia Conakry) was voted second – of 4 finalists, one player. Third was the Nigerian Sedun Odegbami – his club, Shooting Star, reached the ½ finals of the African Cup Winners Cup, where they were eliminated by the eventual winners Enugu Rangers, also from Nigeria. It was not clear-cut loss – two scoreless led to penalty shoot-out – but still... Enugu Rangers won the tournament and no player of the team impressed anybody. Was it that, or local bias? After all, who was Odegbami?

Above all came a player, whose presence is even more intriguing, for he played in a country not participating in the African club tournaments at all. Tarak Dhiab, from Tunisia, playing for Esperance. Based on what he was voted number one, then? Since practically nobody saw him play, save for Tunisian journalists? How good Dhiab really was?
Tarak Dhiab, 23 years old in 1977, was talented – no doubt about it. No doubt about it nowadays, for he was voted the best Tunisian player of the 20th century. Obviously he was impressive in 1977, but was his performance actually known to most voters? Or he got most points thanks to Arabic journalists, who were familiar with him, when the rest of players simply got votes only from countrymen? Hard to tell – Dhiab got some international exposure: he played for the national team of Tunisia, and in 1977 qualifications for the 1978 World Cup were in progress, along with the African Championship. His country eventually won the African spot for the World Cup finals, and that counted more than club tournaments. Certainly more voters saw him than those players not included in national teams, or eliminated at early stage. Unlike African legends like Manga-Oungene and Sherif Souleymane (Hafia, Guinea), Dhiab was seen by the world – in 1978 – but he did not impress anybody. He played well, but the competition was stiff and he did not measure up to world-class stars. Local hero. Nothing wrong with that – the point is, African players were still weak by world standards. Yet, there was something else – Dhiab was midfielder and goalscorer. A different type of African player – so far, quality there was understood to be flashing striker. Dhiab was a playmaker, suggesting improvement of African football – still lagging behind, but trying to catch up with modern football. And at the end everything is tainted... the Tunisian Federation claims Dhiab played 107 matches for the national team – FIFA does not recognize them. It is possible, for he played for his country until 1990, but who really knows? Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find out the real qualities of African players from distant past. Dhiab played only in Tunisia – which somewhat places doubt on his talent, but then again: may be he was paid well, officially or unofficially, at home and did not need to go to Europe. One thing is certain: Dhiab became legendary player in Tunisia. He contributed greatly to the national team, and at the end – to the development of African football. Dhiab was more than just ephemeral African player of the year – but for this 1978 had to arrive. So far – top African player.