There was a severe shortage of goals, but no lack of controversy or politicking as Cameroon retained the African Cup of Nations. Alan Duncan reports
Their Malian hosts were convinced they use magical powers to win matches. They walked out, muscles flexed in sleeveless vests, having not conceded a single goal in the whole contest. And the president of the Confederation of African Football, Issa Hayatou, just happens to be one of their most famous sons. On February 10, the enduring legend which is Cameroonian football once again took hold when the Indomitable Lions became the first side since Ghana in 1965 to retain the African Cup of Nations.
“It’s there for all to see,” said Joseph Marios Omog, assistant to German coach Winfried Schäfer. “There is no superstition about our victory today nor our performance in the tournament.” Had there been a goal in open play during the final, this might have been easier to see. As it was, the gripping 3-2 penalty shoot-out victory that started with a Cameroonian miss and which came at the end of 120 goalless minutes at Bamako’s Stade 26 Mars, added to the sense of déjà vu. Two years earlier, the Indomitable Lions had clinched the title in Nigeria, also after spot-kicks.
Then, Nigerian striker Victor Ikpeba’s penalty had been shown to cross the line. The referee did his job, naturally without the benefit of action replay, and awarded the trophy to Cameroon. This time the same keeper, Alioum Boukar, made the decisive move, blocking from Senegal captain Aliou Cissé to send the hugely outnumbered Cameroon fans into raptures.
Cameroon captain Rigobert Song, whose performances throughout the tournament had suggested West Ham had a cheek to send him on loan to struggling Cologne, paraded his country’s flag alongside Real Madrid’s Geremi Njitap. Schäfer, for his part, looked every bit the well meaning European who had gone native – his blond mullet swaying through a beat he should have perhaps first tried alone at home.
The champions’ 3-0 win over hosts Mali in the semi-final had been overshadowed by the spectre of witchcraft, Cameroon’s goalkeeping coach Thomas Nkono having been handcuffed by police on suspicion of planting magical “charms” on the field before kick-off. Nkono had veered on to the pitch alongside Schäfer to follow live images of the other semi-final between Nigeria and Senegal before being set upon by Malian security forces. Their official excuse? He was not wearing his tournament accreditation badge. That Schäfer was not wearing his either didn’t seem to matter.
There had been reservations about the Nations Cup being staged in impoverished Mali – statistically among the five poorest countries in the world – but the hosts were not found wanting, especially after spending close to £100 million on building five new stadiums across the land. Instead, the bulk of the criticism was saved for Africa’s players, who, having arrived from their various European hide-outs to make up the largest legion of foreign-based players in the competition’s history, simply failed to deliver the goods.
The tournament never quite got going, with just 48 goals scored in 31 games. The soaring temperatures and bumpy pitches certainly contributed to the goal drought. But if the football looked laboured, it also served to highlight the heavy travelling demands on African players in years when the biennial African Cup of Nations coincides with the World Cup. Two separate qualifying campaigns, two lengthy tournaments, fuming European paymasters and tens of thousands of flight miles, had only made more urgent the calls for a harmonised world football calendar.
Issa Hayatou had the perfect solution, put forward during Congress and duly ratified almost before anyone could blink. Gone are the days of two-legged home and away World Cup qualifiers in Africa. Instead, from 2006 the Nations Cup will be transformed into the qualifying series for the World Cup, with the four semi-finalists gaining automatic qualification and the fifth spot up for grabs among the remaining four quarter-finalists.
With the 2004 Nations Cup to be hosted in the relative comfort of Tunisia, Mali could be the last of its kind. CAF is unlikely to award hosting rights to countries it feels would make unworthy World Cup representatives. Notwithstanding the age-old sporting logic that dictates countries should play home and away, CAF’s decision raises the worrying prospect of a two-tier Nations Cup – one meritocratic championship in World Cup years, graced by the foreign-based players, and another which increasingly becomes a neglected home-based affair. But if it was difficult to steer the minds of CAF officials away from the prospect of the thrilling quarter-finals in the offing, would there surely not be a mood of deathly anticlimax once World Cup qualification has been secured, making the subsequent matches a competitive mockery?
The promised metamorphosis of the Nations Cup will make it no more than a means to an end – a move that can only devalue its integrity, not to mention sovereignty. How FIFA will then co-ordinate the final World Cup group draws with a Nations Cup finishing in the second week of February is another issue altogether. A much braver decision would surely have been to hold the Nations Cup every four years rather than in its current format of every two years. But then again, with Hayatou apparently still wavering on a rumoured challenge to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, he could yet bring the rest of the world in harmony with Africa instead, and have a World Cup every two years.
In another contest of popularity gone sadly wrong, the former World Player of the Year George Weah, believed to have fallen out of favour with Liberia’s president Charles Taylor, has promised not to return to his country until there is a change of government. Still, Weah did score the first goal of the tournament in the Lone Stars’ opening 1-1 draw with hosts Mali before ending his international career in the dusty northern riverside town of Mopti. He then took his swansong literally, duetting with his close friend Taribo West on stage at Bamako’s aptly named Hotel de l’Amitié, where they sang “No Jesus, No Life”, to the tune of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry.
West’s Nigeria had shown all the signs of a team suffering from multiple personality syndrome on their way to being knocked out by Senegal’s Lions of Terranga in the semi-finals, and their coach Amodu Shaibu was axed for the relative ignominy of a third place finish. What face they will show against England is anyone’s guess, although their somersaulting striker Julius Aghahowa is certain to offer a test of pace to even the best defences at the World Cup.
The same could be said of the hugely gifted Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf, who by his own admission was delayed on his return back to Lens by a trip to consult two local witchdoctors. That he scored the opening goal in Lens’ 2-1 victory over Montpellier upon his arrival instantly remedied any rift with club president Ger-vais Martel.
As everyday life gets back to normal in Mali and would-be clients continue to barter at Bamako’s main fetish market for everything from porcupine quills to monkey heads, a sports science student at the local university, Mamadou Touré, suggested one cultural interpretation for the persistence of such unorthodox influences on African football. “You call them sports psychologists, we call them witchdoctors. What’s the difference?”
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month