Leye: Football boardroom attitudes remain 'sad and bizarre'

By Samindra KuntiFootball Writer
Standard Liege's Senegalese coach Mbaye Leye
Senegal's Mbeye Leye took over at Standard Liege in January

Attitudes in elite-level football boardrooms towards black coaches remain "sad and bizarre", Standard Liege's Senegalese manager Mbaye Leye has said.

While African footballers have been thriving on the pitch for elite clubs across Europe for decades, Leye is one of only three former African internationals to ever have made the leap into coaching at the same level.

The other two are Lito Vidigal, a former Angolan international, and Ndubuisi Egbo, the ex-Nigeria goalkeeper.

And while footballers have been a focal point of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Leye said he believed that football's multicultural image is not reflected off the pitch.

"I find it sad and bizarre that on the field we have a multicultural image, with all kinds of persons, but that is not translated to the touchline," Leye, who took over at Standard Liege in January, told BBC Sport Africa.

"Responsibility is not given to everyone. I have often said that an African, a black, person isn't just made to execute, we are also made to manage."

A club with values

Even as a journeyman during his 12-year playing career in Belgium - at Ghent, Standard, Lokeren, Eupen and Excelsior Mouscron - Leye was keenly aware that coaching opportunities for Africans were rare.

In the 18-team Belgian top flight, diversity in the dug-out is limited. A number of Africans do hold key coaching roles - such as former Tunisia international Radhi Jaidi, assistant coach at Cercle Brugge.

More broadly, Charleroi are coached by Karim Belhocine, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, and Anderlecht by Vincent Kompany, the former Manchester City captain with family from DR Congo.

Former Standard Liege coach Michel Preud'homme (right) with Mbaye Leye
Leye assisted Michel Preud'homme (right) when the former Belgium goalkeeper was coach of Standard Liege

"Standard is a club that defends its values," said Leye.

"'No to racism' is not something that is simply said by the president and the people at the club. Here, it's never been a question of my colour - it was a question of saying: 'Mbeye can do the job: we are going to give it to him'."

Even so, in June last year, Standard decided against appointing Leye, who had been an assistant to former Belgium goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme, in favour of French coach Philippe Montanier.

The club offered Leye the role of Under-21 coach, but the Senegalese - who had been prepared by Preud'homme to take over the senior role - decided not to accept the demotion and instead left Standard.

He took six months out of football, only to return in historic circumstances.

"An African player who has been an international and who is a coach at a European club - that is almost unheard of," Leye said.

"Maybe we Africans start off with a little handicap because there aren't many people who have already done the job in the past.

"Maybe you have less chances to get the job because it has even become normal not to have an African player or a player of colour become a coach. In that sense when you want to become a coach somewhere, there is a path that you can follow."

Start early

Mbaye Leye (left) with his wife Sandrine when he won Belgium's Ebony Shoe award in 2013
Leye with wife Sandrine when he won Belgium's Ebony Shoe award in 2013, the year he began his coaching training

Leye began his plans to be a coach in 2013, six years before his playing career ended, the same year he won the Belgian Pro League's Ebony Shoe award for the country's best African player or player of African heritage.

His first steps were to get his Uefa B license, often engaging with his coaches in the twilight of his playing career.

On midweek nights, he also dissected European Champions League matches as a TV analyst for a Belgian audience.

"You have to have a vision when you are still a player," Leye explained. "Often we make the mistake of waiting until the end of your career to say: 'I want to be a coach or I want to be a consultant'.

"When you want to become a coach whether it's at a big club or in an average club, you have to prepare during your career as football player and have the idea. You don't have to wait until your 35th birthday to say: 'what am I going to do?' Then, it's too late."

Societal problem

In the early stages of his coaching career, Leye said he believes that the glass ceiling for Africans in the game is a societal problem that requires a focus on education.

"It is sad that it is 2021 and you still talk about racism," he explained. "You talk about situation of the superiority of skin colour. There is a big problem in educating people. Some people still have a closed mind and others are afraid of what they don't know.

"It is especially the parents and the school who could help to translate the diversity of the football field to the office. There are also a lot of African, Asian and other students who do not have the work they deserve in relation to their studies.

"It's like in football where you can find competent coaches, who are Africans or of any colour but who do not have a job. Today's society is like that."