Q. Why is Manchester City’s Kolo Touré the odd one out at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations?
A. He is the only centre-back in the entire tournament who regularly plays for a club that is currently in the top six of one of Europe’s five biggest leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain).*
It may seem restrictive to focus on only the top six clubs from Europe’s elite leagues, but it is nonetheless remarkable that among the playing staff of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Bordeaux, Lille, Montpellier, Marseille, Lyon, Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Bayern Munich, Hamburg, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, Internazionale, Milan, Roma, Napoli, Juventus, Palermo, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Real Mallorca, Deportivo La Coruña and Sevilla there is only one central defender playing at Africa’s showpiece event.
Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the last century has been the subject of much knowing mockery, but African players have since fully infiltrated the upper echelons of the world game. We are used to seeing African full-backs (Eboué, Taïwo, Assou-Ekotto), defensive midfielders (Yaya Touré, Essien, Mahamadou Diarra), attacking midfielders/wingers (Muntari, Sessegnon, Kalou) and strikers (Drogba, Eto’o, Kanouté), while Espanyol’s Cameroonian goalkeeper Carlos Kameni is among the best in La Liga.
When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) named the best 30 African players of the last 50 years in 2007, there were five centre-backs in the list – Noureddine Naybet (Morocco), Hany Ramzy (Egypt), Lucas Radebe (South Africa), Samuel Kuffour (Ghana) and Rigobert Song (Cameroon). All played significant portions of their careers during the last decade, but only Song is still active and Touré is one of few Africans playing in his position at the very highest level.
Why should that be the case? Is it an unwelcome echo of darker days in Europe, when African players were automatically dismissed as tactically naïve and therefore unsuited for positions of responsibility? Or is it simply that African football, with its emphasis on running and long-range shooting, produces more forwards and midfielders than central defenders?
Either way, it makes little sense. Touré is one of the most multi-faceted centre-backs in the Premier League and with some pundits predicting a return to the days of the marauding sweeper in response to the growing prevalence of the one-striker 4-2-3-1 formation, defenders who share his characteristically African blend of athleticism and attacking prowess are sure to become increasingly precious commodities.
* Monaco’s promising 19-year-old Nicolas N’Koulou plays at centre-back for Cameroon but has been deployed as a defensive midfielder by his club (who are currently fifth in Ligue 1) this season. Fellow Cameroonian Sébastien Bassong of Tottenham, meanwhile, was somewhat unfortunate not to earn an Africa Cup of Nations call-up from Paul Le Guen.