THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Jonathan Wilson reports from the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations where he found the football disappointing but the organisation worse

Remember 1990? Remember Cameroon capping a decade of African development by pushing England to the limit in the World Cup quarter-final? Remember the general assumption that African football was emerging into the mainstream and that African nations would soon be challenging for the tournament on a regular basis? Since then, despite the increasing prevalence of African players at top club sides, more teams from the Asian confederation have reached the last eight than from Africa.

This was my fourth Cup of Nations and in some limited ways it was the best. I didn’t get ill, I didn’t get mugged, I ate well, local fans supported the tournament in greater numbers than at any Cup of Nations in the past decade and the facilities within the stadiums were the best yet. Only once did I not have a desk, while the wi-fi worked fairly consistently.

The football, though, was profoundly depressing. Only three teams emerged from the tournament with any credit: Egypt, who were by far the best side and deservedly completed a hat-trick of successive titles; Ghana, whose young side overcame the absence of half a dozen established players to at least construct a defence; and Zambia, who played with a verve and coherence far above their station, and were unlucky to lose in the quarter-final to Nigeria.

In 2002, Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal seemed to hold out genuine promise. Even in 2006, as the established names had been shoved aside by the likes of Ivory Coast, Togo and Angola, there was the sense of an increasing depth of talent. This time, it’s the same old names and the same old problems. Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Algeria and Nigeria all have obvious and basic flaws and, for all Ghana’s promise, there remains a very real possibility that at the first African World Cup no African team will make it through the group stage.

More depressing, of course, was the terrorist attack on Togo. Not just because three people died – terrible as that is – but because of the way it highlighted the inadequacies of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), an always hapless body now revealed to be lacking both common sense and human decency.

There were those who leapt immediately to condemn CAF for taking the tournament to Angola – and it doesn’t take the greatest cynic to see significance in the coincidence that oil-producing countries will host the next two tournaments as well (Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012 and Libya in 2014) – but to do so on the grounds of security is a red herring. After the peace deal agreed between the Angolan government and the Cabindan separatist group FLEC in 2006, there had been no reported terrorist activity until the attack on Togo and no suggestion of any threat.

No, Angola was a bad choice of host because the internal infrastructure is atrocious (Angola must surely be the only country in the world where in the capital it’s quicker to walk than to drive and outside it’s quicker to drive than to fly) and because it is prohibitively expensive. Angola saw fewer than a tenth of the travelling fans who went to Ghana, and journalist numbers were similarly hit. To give the tournament to Angola was to take it way from the rest of Africa.

CAF’s main culpability was in its response to the disaster. First of all, officials of CAF and COCAN, the local organising committee (and I use the term “organising” quite inappropriately), blamed Togo for travelling by bus, insisting they hadn’t been informed. Given that the Angolan army provided an escort somebody clearly knew. Besides which, for Togo to take the bus was completely logical and was certainly not, as some claimed, to do with poverty.

Togo prepared for the tournament in Point Noir in Congo-Brazzaville, at a high-grade complex that features a new artificial surface. In terms of climatic conditions, it was perfect. Compare this with the Algerians, who prepared in southern France and then complained about the heat as they lost their opening game 3-0 to Malawi. From Point Noir to Cabinda is only a little over 100 miles. It would have been illogical to travel by anything other than bus.

Most disgraceful, of course, was CAF’s decision to formally disqualify Togo after their withdrawal and then to ban them from the next two Cups of Nations. How many members of a delegation have to be shot dead, you wonder, before a team is allowed to go home? In its insensitivity and stupidity, the suspension should have been flabbergasting but to anybody who has had to deal with CAF, it was sadly predictable.

Then there are the low-level annoyances: the arbitrary distribution of accreditation; the inability to forward to COCAN the passport details of accredited journalists so they could be distributed to embassies and visas could be processed; the lack of even the most basic information; the refusal to force teams to hold a press conference the day before games. That is a journalist’s list, but fans, federations and players could presumably produce something similar.

After the final in Luanda, I got lost on the way back to the media complex where I was staying. Finding the plush CAF hotel – prices ranging from $600 (£375) to $3,500 a night – I went in to ask for directions and bumped into CAF’s chief media officer eating a hamburger in the lobby. I asked for help and he produced a lackey who gave hopelessly inaccurate directions. Following them, we ended up in a shopping centre carpark and explained the problem to a local in bad Portuguese. He guided us straight there, driving in front of us and then cheerily waving as he sped away. The moral of the story is clear – you’ve got more chance of getting accurate information from a random man in a carpark than CAF’s chief media officer.

As Togo discovered, CAF have two responses to any issue: to ignore it or to impose arbitrary and vindictive penalties. The profile of African players has never been higher, but African football is going backwards and the principal obstacle to its development is the confederation that is supposed to govern it.

From WSC 277 March 2010

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