The Senegal national football team has attracted worldwide attention in Russia in the past few days and it wasn’t just because they’ve had the only win, so far, for an African nation at the World Cup – a 2-1 victory over Poland in Group H.
Their manager, Aliou Cisse, is the only black person in charge of any of the 32 nations taking part in the tournament, despite the prevalence of black players.
“I am the only black coach in this World Cup. That is true, but really these are debates that disturb me,” Cisse told reporters. “I think that football is a universal sport and that the colour of your skin is of very little importance.”
Cisse’s uniqueness made headlines, but it is far from an exception in the history of the tournament. It is actually the rule.
Expansion of teams, not places
Black managers are a rare sight in World Cups.
Even the expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams has not helped.
At France 1998, the first of the larger World Cups, there were no black coaches, despite an increase in the number of teams from countries with a majority black population – African nations, for example, went from three to five spots.
Since then, only seven black professionals have had a chance to lead a campaign.
Even the 2010 tournament, hosted by South Africa in a major victory for football on the continent, had a 32-0 score in the dugout.
“We can play, but not lead. Maybe the black man is only made to execute,” Florent Ibenge, the Democratic Republic of Congo coach told news agency AFP in a damning assessment of opportunities.
Ibenge, who is still in charge and won the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations, was also referring to the fact that African countries have a tradition of employing white managers, usually seasoned European or South American professionals.
It was the case, for example, with Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, who in 2010 coached the South Africans.
In their previous and maiden tournament participation (1998), the man in charge of the ‘Bafana’ was Frenchman Phillipe Troussier.
In fact, in the last Africa Cup of Nations (2017), only three out of 16 teams had a black manager.
But some argue the lack is not down to prejudice.
“It really has not much to do with the nationality of the coach. It’s the competence of the coach. If we have a Ghanaian coach who can win a tournament, great. It we have an European, it’s great too,” Kwesi Nyantakyi, former president of the Ghana FA, said recently in a TV interview.
Ghana is one of Africa’s football powerhouses, but missed out on Russia 2018.
Their current manager is former captain James Apiah, who replaced the former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, an Israeli, after the ‘Black Stars’ finished fourth in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Ghana’s greatest accolades – four continental titles (1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982) – were obtained under black managers.
Minorities at work
For equality campaigners, the racial disparity in the World Cup dugout is the tip of the iceberg.
In 2014, a large-scale study commissioned by the Football Against Racism in Europe network gave a daunting picture: surveying clubs and football organisations in England, France and the Netherlands, it found that black and ethnic minority professionals occupied only 3% of coaching and assorted staff jobs.
“It should not be a surprise to see this under-representation at the highest level, when you see the lack of opportunities from the bottom,” Piara Powar, Fare’s executive-director, says.
“European big leagues are responsible for this. They have a history of having black players but no support in stimulating them to become coaches. It’s the old prejudice that black athletes are seen as good performers, but not leaders.
“Black managers are fighting centuries of prejudice, of scientific racism that was once used to justify slavery. And once it was embedded in European football, this racism expanded to other regions like Africa, where hiring white European managers is very common, especially veterans who end up coaching two or more countries in the region,” Powar adds.
In club football, in England, the 2017-18 season had only three black or minority ethnic managers in the 92 clubs in the four professional divisions. And there was only one in the Premier League – Brighton’s Chris Hughton.
At least 25% of professional footballers in England are black.
But in international football, few cases are as emblematic as Brazil.
The most successful country in World Cup history has a mixed-race population of over 50% (47% of them black) and has relied upon non-white players such as Pele, Garrincha, Romario and Ronaldo to win the trophy five times.
However, Brazil have never had a black manager at a World Cup.
“This has never put me off becoming a manager myself, but I do understand that black managers might feel the competition is not fair,” former Brazil star Gilberto Silva, part of the 2002 World Cup-winning side and these days working as a TV pundit, said.
“The only advice I have is that if there is prejudice, black people should face it with their heads up high. Like we used to do when we heard racist chants at the stadium in our playing days.”
And while France’s World Cup-winning 1998 side was celebrated for its multi-ethnicity, coaching careers eluded the majority of the non-white players.
While white men Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps managed the national team and Zinedine Zidane took Real Madrid to three Uefa Champions League trophies, Patrick Vieira has only recently broken the “class ceiling” by being appointed manager of French top division side Nice on 11 June.
Dutch journalist and writer Simon Kuper, co-author of football book ‘Soccernomics’, argues that the situation is also influenced by unconscious bias.
“When clubs and football associations hire coaches they are also thinking of PR. They are worried about how the manager will be received, so they go for someone who ‘looks like a manager’ in the end,” Kuper reckons.
“And that means a white man, 40 to 60 years old, and with an alpha male mentality. They play safe, because if clubs or associations go outside the template they will face criticism if results don’t go their way.”
In the book, Simon and co-author Stefan Szymanski present findings showing that managers are much less influential in winning matches than conventional wisdom presumes.
“Cisse did not win the match for Senegal. The players are responsible for 95% of victories. But the manager is the face of the team. Public and media interact with the manager and see him in press conferences. Instead of colour we should also be talking about gender. Because maybe a black woman could be a great manager.”
“But people would laugh if this ever happened. It is a crazy bias, but more unconscious. A striker is never chosen for PR reasons, but the coach or manager is. Sadly, football is not an industry that does a lot reflection. This situation would not stand in other fields,” Kuper says.
Cisse would be excused for dodging controversy when asked about the matter during a World Cup. But the Senegal coach addressed the issue on the eve of the country’s match against Poland.
“Football is a universal sport and I represent a new generation that would like to have its place in African and world football. Beyond being good players, we [Africans] are very good in our tactics and we have the right to be part of the top international matches.”