Former France and Bayern Munich defender Willy Sagnol has been mentioned as one of three shortlisted coaches for the vacant Black Stars coaching job. While the committee tasked to find Avram Grant’s replacement has not yet officially unveiled their shortlist, that hasn’t stopped the media from speculating.
Alongside Monsieur Sagnol is the hugely experienced Cameroon boss Hugo Broos and former Black Stars coach Kwesi Appiah – the latter highly tipped to be given the job for a second time.
At 64, Broos is a 29-year coaching veteran with his latest success a triumph with Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017. Appiah on the other hand, has the advantage of a first experience and will be eager to correct his past mistakes with a second stint.
But the one among the list; the one with the most distinguished playing career; the one with more connections to Ghana than his European counterpart; the one that represents a calculated gamble, is the 40-year old two-time Confederations cup winner and world cup finalist Willy Sagnol. Sagnol is a long time playing mate of former Ghana international Sammy Kuffuor. The pair spent five years together in Bavaria, winning the Champions league in 2001, three Bundesliga titles, the now defunct Intercontinental Cup and many more laurels together. Till date, the pair are still good mates.
But what does the world cup finalist bring on board and should we hand the Black Stars job to him?
Sagnol began his career in coaching with France’s under-21s in 2013 and spent a year with them before he was swiftly snapped up by Ligue 1 side Bordeaux. During his one year spell with Les Bleuets, Sagnol was in charge of a hugely talented squad captained by Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti. The squad also included the likes of Anthony Martial (Man United), Lucas Digne (Barcelona), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea), Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter Milan), Flaurent Thauvin (Marseille), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Yaya Sanogo (Arsenal) Djibril Sidibe (Monaco) Layvin Kurzawa (PSG) and Nabil Fekir (Lyon).
In his nine games in charge of the French Under-21s, Sagnol won every single one of them. The team was firmly in position to qualify for the 2015 European U-21 championships before he left.
Bordeaux signed him on a two-year contract for his first coaching job at club level. His first season was a major success, finishing the season in 6th position in Ligue 1 which qualified the team for the following season’s Europa League.
The highlights of his first season included a 4–1 win against Monaco, and a 3–2 win against Paris Saint-Germain. These results are especially fascinated given Bordeaux’s more established opponents were playing in the UEFA Champions league at the time.
The second season didn’t go quite well with disappointing results culminating in his sacking in March 2016, three months before his 2-year contract was due to run out. While his second season might not have gone according to plan, he would be remembered for guiding the team to the group stages of the Europa league that season.
During his playing days, Willy Sagnol was a relentless full back, always working hard up and down the right flank, helping out his attack while executing his defensive duties exceptionally. The exceptional skill Sagnol lacked, he made up for it with exemplary hard work.
His marauding runs were particularly eye-catching in his man of the match performance in the 2006 FIFA world cup final which – of course – wasn’t helped by his teammate Zinedine Zidane’s sending off. France lost the final to Italy in penalty kicks.
It’s this attitude Sagnol has carried unto teams he has coached, emphasizing on expansive football rooted in each player working hard for their teammates. When he took charge of Bordeaux, he declared his intention to play expressive brand of football in no uncertain terms: “In my career, I was made to understand that to have great performances; you have to really enjoy it. And to really enjoy it, you have to play, you have to have the ball, and you have to have fun with it. That’s what I’m going to try and do with Bordeaux.”
And that’s exactly what he did with Bordeaux. When they beat Monaco 4-1, they completely dominated their opponents in every aspect of the game. He gave freedom to his players to express themselves.
In a time when Ghanaians were bored by Avram Grant’s dreary playing style, Sagnol could be the man to bring back the country’s famous “Agoro” style of football, combining flamboyant play with positive results. Trained in two of the world’s most effective footballing countries (Germany and France), Sagnol shouldn’t struggle to combine the two.
One of the biggest talking points about Sagnol potentially taking charge of the Black Stars has been remarks he made about African players while in charge of Bordeaux. The controversy started after Mr Sagnol gave an interview in Sud Ouest newspaper in which he said: “The advantage of the typical African player is that he’s not expensive, is generally up for a fight, someone you could qualify as powerful on the pitch. But football isn’t only that … it’s also about technique, intelligence and discipline. You need a bit of everything.”
His remarks divided France. While many largely criticized him, an equal number, if not more, supported him. Former Manchester United striker Luis Saha was among the high profile names to react to the comments saying he was “surprised” and “shocked”.
But many in the top echelons of football defended the coach, with Noël Le Graët, FFF president, dismissing the remark as “clumsy”, while his Bordeaux club president, Jean-Louis Triaud, said the row was “totally unjustified”.
While Sagnol himself apologized and maintained that his words were misrepresented, his captain and Senegalese international Lamine Kone and his teammates, which included seven other African players, threw their weight behind their manager saying: “We know the man and he is someone very good.”
Lilian Thuram, who played alongside Sagnol was measured in his defence of the player saying he has a lot of “respect” for him. Henri Saivet, one of Sagnol’s 8 black players also jumped to his manager’s defence telling RMC Radio, “We all know pertinently well that the coach is not a racist.”
When Sagnol explained himself, he said, “Given that we were talking about football, the intelligence I mentioned was obviously tactical intelligence. In no way was I talking about intelligence in the literal sense of the word, concerning individuals.
The interpretation that these people may have made does not reflect my way of thinking in any way or my humanist convictions.”
Sagnol’s explanation was deemed tenable by the head of the French foundation for the memorial of black slavery, Karfa Diallo, who said the remarks were “more clumsy than racist”.
“I think above all Willy Sagnol wanted to say that training centres in Africa privilege power, combativeness and individuality over technique and the intelligence of collective play,” he said.
Sagnol has also maintained that his comments were specifically in relation to younger African players coming to Europe as raw talents who obviously need development in all aspects of their game and not the more established African stars such as the Etoos and Drogbas.
So how does all this matter in the context of the Black Stars job?
Many believe he shouldn’t be given the job since he doesn’t appear to like African players very much. They are quick to declare him racist. But they have forgotten that throughout Sagnol’s career, there has never been a time he hasn’t encountered black people. At Monaco, Bayern Munich (where he met Sammy Kuffour and is still good friends with), the France national team, he has been with black people without any of them ever reporting any complaints of him showing discrimination.
During his time with the France U-21 squad, 85% of his players were black, captained by a black player in Samuel Umtiti. When he took charge of Bordeaux, he took the captain’s armband and handed it to a Senegalese player in Lamine Sane. He signed two African players – Kiese Thelin (Congo) and Wahbi Kahzri (Tunisia) while handing professional contracts to Cedric Yambere (CAR) Adam Ounas (Algeria) and Thomas Toure (Cote d’Ivoire). This is not the action of a man who thinks African footballers are “unintelligent”. In short, Sagnol doesn’t and won’t have a problem working with African players.
Handing Sagnol the Black Stars job is a calculated risk that could pay high dividends. It’s no doubt the other contenders in the list have more experience but so many things don’t favour them.
For Hugo Broos, the obvious is age. At 64 and with three Belgian league titles and an African Cup of Nations title to go with, he’s arguably now looking for a pay day. With our experiences with 62-year old Grant, who didn’t seem bothered about results at all, there are fears of a recurrence from Broos, who basically has nothing to prove any more.
Kwesi Appiah supervised a global ridicule of Ghana at the 2014 world cup in Brazil which led to his sack. He’s been accused of being naive – a breakdown in tears in front of the entire team – the overwhelming evidence often alluded to justify the point.
Moreover, while no one is a prophet to be able to predict how his second coming would be like, the likes of Jose Mourinho and Kenny Daglish have discovered in the hardest of ways that it doesn’t always end gleefully.
Then there’s Sagnol –young, energetic, and equipped with fresh coaching ideas. He has everything to lose and cannot afford to mess up. He’s guaranteed to work hardest whichever way results go could have serious implications for his career.
If things go well, this could provide a good springboard to launch his coaching career unto greater heights. If he underwhelms, his coaching career could be over even before it had properly started. So certainly, there’s no lack of motivation to perform.
His experience with young players could also come in handy, especially at a time when the Black Stars team is gnawingly in need of fresh blood.
Sagnol has already spoken of his connections with Ghana declaring his love for Ghanaian people and their food during his last visit to the country. And with the help of his good friend Sammy Kuffour, Sagnol, who is fluent in English shouldn’t have problems spending more time in the country in order to help scout for players in the Ghana premier league and beyond.
When Zambia gave the job to Herve Renard, he was a rookie coach but led them to AFCON glory. He had desire, passion and determination to make a mark. But after winning two Cup of Nations titles, he failed to get past the quarter finals with Morocco. Sometimes, the experience counts for nothing.
At the moment, fans of the Black Stars a craving for a coach that will bring that passion, hunger and drive; the will to fight for the red, gold and green. And the man who has been fighting all his career; fighting for trophies and fighting to clear his name; Willy Sagnol could be the man to end our over 3-decade long wait for an AFCON title.
By: Fentuo Tahiru