Nation’s grace

wsc302While the tournament was not an unqualified success, Zambia’s continental title win was poignant and triumphant in ways that could have never have been expected, writes Paul Giess

With so many of Africa’s major footballing nations not qualifying for this year’s Cup of Nations, the big story of the group stages was the unexpected success of co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Both qualified for the knockout rounds with a game to spare and both did it in dramatic style.

After beating Libya narrowly in the opening game of the tournament, Equatorial Guinea conceded a last-minute equaliser to the disappointing Senegal side in the next fixture, but then progressed with a wonderful injury-time goal. Two days later, Gabon did exactly the same, when they conceded in the last minute to Morocco. They progressed thanks to a stoppage-time free-kick from their Dynamo Minsk midfielder Bruno Ziti Mbanangoyé. The unfancied hosts went through at the expense of two of the nations expected to challenge for the title. Most observers now expected it to be a comfortable ride to the final for Ghana and Ivory Coast, who were placed on opposite sides of the draw.

It was not to be. The remainder of the tournament was all about the drama, romance and sadness that Zambia’s participation brought to the final. The hype behind their opponent’s story was probably just what Ivory Coast wanted, having failed as tournament favourites in 2008 and 2010. But the pressure to succeed proved too much again, culminating in a woeful penalty miss from Didier Drogba that should have won them the game in normal time. Ivory Coast went home losers without conceding a single goal. They remain the continent’s greatest underachievers.

The seemingly successful tournament was not without controversy, however. The unexpected progress of Equatorial Guinea brought media attention to the nation’s misuse of its oil wealth. While 70 per cent of the population live in poverty, Teodoro Obiang, the son of the country’s president, honoured his promise to pay the squad a £630,00 bonus for their efforts. Obiang was already the target of a US government court action to seize nearly £45 million worth of assets that were allegedly siphoned off through corruption, including his personal collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia.

The players he paid were largely born outside of the country, from locations as far apart as Brazil and Cape Verde. Several had been induced to relocate for the tournament by the football-obsessed Obiang, whose government arranged for players to receive dual citizenship or even completely change their nationality to compete. The issue of a player’s true nationality affected other sides in the tournament. Burkina Faso’s participation was only assured at the last minute, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport determined their Cameroon-born defender, Herve Zengue, qualified to represent them after marrying a Burkinabe woman.

The one talking point that continues to rage is the issue of attendances. They were strikingly bad, even by the low standards of the tournament in recent years. The nadir arrived in the group stages, when Sudan and Burkina Faso met in the 30,000-seat Bata stadium with just 132 paying fans in attendance. With tickets costing up to three weeks’ wages, this should not have been surprising. In countries where people do not have disposable income, attending football games is an unattainable luxury.

The next tournament is only one year away as it switches to avoid conflict with the World Cup. Hosted by South Africa, with the continent’s richest football league, there is an expectation that stadiums will be full. However, the post-World Cup Bafana Bafana performances have created a slump in interest across the nation. Such has been the decline in results – including their failure to qualify for this year’s tournament – that the South Africa FA downgraded the last two friendly internationals to “practice matches” for fear that defeats would lead to further loss of valuable FIFA ranking points. The good run the side went on prior to the World Cup has now been brought into question as part of a FIFA investigation into match-fixing. A weak home side may depart next year’s Cup early, with an increasingly disillusioned public finding other ways to spend their money.

There has also been a growing culture of watching football on TV rather than in the stadium across South Africa. This was not helped by the doubling of ticket prices for league fixtures immediately after the World Cup. Significant numbers of South Africans watch English football and look down on the African product as inferior. How these people will be enticed into a stadium for a tournament that clashes with the Premier League is a further issue for the organising committee. Without FIFA to guide them, South African may now face a bigger challenge than they had in hosting a World Cup.

From WSC 302 April 2012