The fuss over the timing of Ghana 2008 helped put the tournament centre-stage around the world – and those watching can only have been impressed, writes Alan Sharif Duncan

There can be no turning back now for African football. Largely overlooked a decade ago as little more than the continental confederation’s nativity play, the Africa Cup of Nations is being transformed into something of a global sporting phenomenon. While there will be those who will mourn its relative loss of innocence to a world of sponsors, TV rights and unprecedented western media scrutiny, Ghana 2008 was, in terms of the quality of football alone, a timely coming of age – two years before South Africa hosts the World Cup.

The Unity Cup was retained by Egypt – a record sixth win – and the tournament produced a new high of 99 goals and arguably the best football seen since the finals were expanded to include 16 nations for South Africa 96. The pre-tournament hype was dominated by the impact the biennial draining of African talent would have on ­Europe’s leagues and, in particular, the Premier League. But this had inadvertently guaranteed international media build-up, and a sudden, if overdue, proper appreciation of Africa’s premier football tournament. 

Michael Essien billboards dotted the dusty, harmattan-blown streets of Accra, while Eurosport showed Puma commercials featuring Samuel Eto’o as half-man, half-machine, but Ghana 2008 was nonetheless a victory for home values. It was largely a gathering of coaches from the rest of the world, but it was an African coach, Hassan Shehata – one of only four in the competition – who masterminded Egypt’s win.

That his Pharaohs team breezed past opponents with a brand of fast free-flowing attacking football reminiscent of a seasoned club side says much about the merits of a squad whose stars – including the player of the tournament, Mohamed Aboutreika – are drawn from the domestic league. Concerns that Egypt would flounder in the heat and humidity of west Africa proved unfounded. The irony is that Egypt’s top players, who feature strongly in African club competitions, are perhaps these days better accustomed to so-called “African conditions” than their Barcelona- or London-based counterparts.

Still, if there is a moral to the tale of Shehata’s success, it is that African nations should show more faith in the abilities of their own coaches. Angola, as much a revelation in the tournament as their new star player, Manucho, will feel vindicated. Their quarter-final defeat to Egypt was their best showing at the finals and was orchestrated by Luís Oliveira Gonçalves, who two years ago also led the Palancas Negras to an unlikely World Cup qualification. Gonçalves and Shehata were both previously in charge of their national Under-20 teams and won continental titles at that level in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

Indeed, an enduring disappointment of African football is the propensity of national federations to discard their local coaches (as Benin did with Wabi Gomez) following successful qualification campaigns, para-chuteing in one of a group of ­European ­journeymen whose claim to be top coaches owes more to the number of times they have been recycled through the continent’s system than to any silverware they’ve amassed.

There will, of course, always be a market for the quick fix. The timing of the Cup of Nations every two years all but guarantees this. And there are those such as Otto Pfister and Claude Le Roy who are even good at it. The 70-year-old Pfister, whose first coaching job in Africa was with Rwanda in 1972, took over Cameroon barely three months before the tournament and reached the final. Le Roy, 60 during the tournament, used his famous man-management skills to coax a reticent Ghana, and the misfiring Gyan brothers, to a third-place finish, winning a new long-term contract.

While Le Roy was gracious in defeat to Pfister’s workmanlike Cameroon in the semis, the two men were less than complimentary about the organising committee. Pfister spoke of the inconsistent standard of hotels, buses not turning up on time and kitbags going missing, while Le Roy accused officials of being worried about getting the right sofas in the VIP section when they should have been addressing the length of the grass on the pitch. This obsession with ceremony took a perverse twist with the African Footballer of the Year award. The presentation was in neighbouring Togo, with the complication of falling in the middle of the tournament; the award was allegedly palmed off to Mali’s Fredi Kanouté ahead of Didier Drogba, whose alleged crime was to have stayed in camp with his team-mates rather than attend the event.

Drogba’s Ivory Coast side received a 4-1 drubbing from Egypt in the semis but they played well earlier in the tournament and have no cause for pessimism. The same cannot be said of Nigeria and Senegal, who paid the price of believing their own propaganda. No one can accuse Carlos Alberto Parreira’s fine-passing but utterly ineffective South African side of deluding anyone, including themselves; they arrived with the motto “planning for the future” and left with an uncertain one to contemplate.

A buoyant Angola is preparing to throw its vast diamond and oil revenues at the problem of organising the 2010 Nations Cup, though questions linger about its organisational readiness. But the immediate question for African teams is not so much if the timing of the event should be changed to every four or even three years, but whether even the best teams in the world can peak twice in the space of a mere six months.

From WSC 254 April 2008

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