9 December 2012

Africa: Determining Africa's Best Player of the Year!


The annual ritual of selecting Africa's best players and rewarding them is upon us again.

On December 20, 2012, in the city of Accra, Ghana, Globacom, the African telecommunication giants and the sole-sponsors of this annual feast of excitement and drama for the past 5 years, will pull out all the stops and spare no expense in organising for the fourth time in Ghana, a show that can only best itself in scope, style, content and organisation. A large audience made up of the high and mighty in African celebrity, captains of industry and top politicians from the host country, the Creme of the Confederation of African Football executive members, high-ranking football and government administrators, a sprinkling of legendary African footballers, a fine selection of some of Africa's best cultural icons, artists, entertainers and musicians, Glo Ambassadors, and a cross-section of Ghana's celebrity across the spectrum of entertainment, will make up another memorable night again.

The organisers always ensure that the night is one to enjoy and savour, as the continent celebrates some of the best footballers of African descent that have provided some of the best football in the past one year. The period in consideration is January to December 2012.

My particular interest on this occasion is in the most prestigious of the awards, the one that draws the curtains on the event annually, the one that crowns the African Player of the Year. The award usually goes to a male player of African origin that may be playing anywhere in the world, but is considered to have played the best football and, perhaps, contributed the most to the success of the team he plays for, without the team necessarily having to win a championship!

Let me admit straight away that I am no longer quite conversant with the latest criteria for selection and the process. There are also a few questions that agitate my mind as the day draws closer. In my mind it sets the stage for the African Cup of Nations which seems to play a major part in the choice of the list of players. Who does the initial selection of the best 10 players? What do the selectors put into consideration in making their choices? Who whittles down the numbers from the initial list of 10 to 5 and then finally to the last 3 that we now have? Who does the final selection of the winner on the night? The answers to these questions may be quite simple and academic, as everyone people seem to have accepted the previous verdicts as authentic and deserved. My views here are not to challenge, invalidate or even criticise any aspect of previous awards, but rather to validate them and look at how they could be made to reflect better the purpose(s) the awards are meant to serve.

As it is at the moment, the selection has been narrowed down to three players. They are Didier Drogba of Cote D'Ivoire and Shanghai Shensua FC in China, Yaya Toure, also of Cote D'Ivoire and Manchester City FC in England, and Alexander Song of Cameroon and Barcelona FC in Spain. All 3 have been great ambassadors of the game and superb advertisement for the African game.

But there is a second award one, designed as a political response to an important issue that comes up every year, and once again agitates my mind as we approach D-day. It is the award of the CAF African Footballer Award. It is another 'Africa's best player award' introduced a few years ago to placate African players in the continent that have been shut out from the main award by Europe-based African professionals, these are players that play very little in the continent but qualify by virtue of their being of African descent, and may be playing in their national teams (or not). The truth is that this second award is 'second division'. It attracts very little interest and respect beyond the ceremony of its presentation. It is cosmetic, of little relevance, and does not register in the minds of the public. I have new thoughts about it as Africa awaits the start of Afcon 2013, the championship seems to be pivotal in the determination of who wins the main award.

Even as I am writing this I am asking myself questions, drawing examples from other climes, attempting to justify the present system and drawing some reasonable conclusions.

Follow my simple logic and scenarios.

Lionel Messi is an Argentinian. He plays in the La Liga for FC Barcelona, a Spanish Club based in Europe. He is not of European origin. Yet he is a past winner of the European Player of the Year award. I earned the honour through his performances in domestic and international CLUB football matches in Europe.

Liberia's George Weah was given the same award many years ago whilst playing for Italian giants, AC Milan FC. Weah is not a European. He won the European award also by virtue of his performance in the domestic and international CLUB matches in Europe.

There are several others like the two above.

Now on to a different example and scenario.

David Beckham is an English man. He has been playing for Galaxy FC in the US for a few years. Had he played for England in that period and played excellently, would he ever have been considered or nominated for European player of the year?

Another hypothetical situation. Can a Chinese playing in Manchester United FC, and representing China at international matches, be considered for award of European Player of the Year? Could he also be considered as 'Asian Player of the Year', after all he is Asian by origin?

The geographical space where a player plays his domestic CLUB football seems to be a key element in the consideration of the continental Player of the Year award and not the country of origin, or national team performances for those that are Europeans, Asians, South American, etc.

From these academic deductions above, it seems to me that in Europe especially, where we draw direction and inspiration from on a lot of fronts, except a player is playing in the domestic league within the continent, he would not be either eligible or considered deserving of the continent's player of the year award. It is in the domestic games that most of the matches and most of the action reside.

In short, a player cannot be playing his domestic football in another continent and win his continent's best player award. The award is not for how good a player is considered to be overall, but how well he has played locally within a defined geographical space! Reputation earned elsewhere never counts. That is the norm.

Where does the national team come into play?

It appears to me that although playing for the national team matters a lot, but comes into play only if the domestic club a player plays for is in the same continent as the club. That may count as a big psychological advantage, but not a sole platform for winning the award. I may be wrong but, would David Beckham in representing England in European national championships in any particular year be considered for the European award as he plays domestically in the USA?

Now I come to the African continent. It is clear we have not adopted the methodology of Europe, in particular, or any of the other continental bodies for that matter, even though we once did. I recall that it is the massive migration of most of the best, and emerging African players, abroad that made the process of selection to be modified to suit Africa's peculiar circumstances and enhance the image and sponsorship potential of the African awards.

In the 1970s, for example, when the awards were introduced by a France-based magazine, the selection process was entirely the affair of the magazine's editors. The awards were given to African players playing in the African continent in the year in consideration. But since the 1990s and CAF's take over of the role of organiser the process and criteria have had a gentle shift of the 'goal posts'.

Today, we are faced with a strange situation. The three players listed have played very little football on the continent. They took part in the African Cup of Nations played in early January of 2012. Since then there has only been the few recent qualifying matches for Afcon 2013. These are national team matches. These are hardly enough games to make fair and good judgement. Unlike what transpires elsewhere none of the 3 players plays in the domestic club leagues within the African continent. So, are we using their domestic club matches in Europe to reward them in Africa? Their domestic club matches already provide them the opportunity to win the European Player of the Year award (if they are that good)! Thats where they belong! The African continent's topmost award, therefore, should go to players whose performances on the continent are in club football first and country second. This will surely help in the development of the game and the players in the continent.

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