Read the rulebook

Many previous winners will miss out on next year’s Africa Cup of Nations after a farcical set of qualifiers, reports Paul Giess

On the same weekend that the big guns of European football secured their places at Euro 2012, several major African teams were being eliminated from the corresponding Cup of Nations in 2012. Eight of the winners from the past nine tournaments failed to make it on a weekend of drama, disappointment and farce. The list of failures includes reigning champions Egypt, alongside the traditional powerhouses Nigeria and Cameroon, and World Cup 2010 hosts South Africa.

Taking their place at the tournament will be Botswana, Niger and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, all of whom will be making their debuts. It could be argued that this indicates a welcome improvement in standards among the continent’s smaller nations. The sad truth, however, is a story of how big egos and poor planning undermined the established nations.

Perhaps only Egypt can be excused. The political uprising clearly disrupted their preparation for key fixtures. However, this latest failure follows their shock elimination in the qualifiers for last year’s World Cup, which suggests a generation of successful players may be reaching an end.

Libya were arguably more inconvenienced than Egypt but they eventually qualified in one of the best runners-up places. With the country in turmoil for much of the campaign they played the final two home fixtures in Mali and Egypt. An emotional Libya side confirmed qualification by beating Mozambique 1-0 behind closed doors in Cairo. Wearing a changed kit and singing a new national anthem, their success was one of the highlights of the campaign.

The personnel problems that derailed Cameroon at the World Cup resurfaced at a time when they had to face Senegal in a crucial qualifier. Alex Song returned to the squad but was then fined for refusing a reconciliatory handshake from Samuel Eto’o. Benoît Assou-Ekotto was given an official warning for missing the match without explanation. Senegal won the group and Cameroon could not muster enough points to finish as one of the best runners-up.

Worse was to come for Nigeria and South Africa, who misunderstood the qualification rules in spectacular style. The Nigerians went into their final home game with Guinea already certain to finish behind their less fancied visitors. A place as one of the best runners-up was a distinct 
possibility but they believed incorrectly that a two-goal margin was required. Leading 2-1 going into injury time they surged forward and were caught on the break. The resulting draw eliminated Nigeria and allowed Libya to qualify, after gaining just one more point than the Super Eagles.

The situation in South Africa was even more ridiculous. Following a draw with Sierra Leone, Bafana Bafana went on a lap of honour believing they had qualified on goal difference from a three-way tie at the top of their group. The rules are quite clear, however, that in such an event the head-to-head rule is used to separate teams that finish on equal points. The coach and his players were informed an hour later that they had actually finished behind Niger.

In the meantime, Kirsten Nematandani, the president of the South African Football Association (SAFA), had appeared live on national television to congratulate the team. For many in Mpumalanga, where the game was held, celebrations went on into the night, with the full implications of the mistake only becoming apparent the next morning.

It is particularly sad for Nigeria and South Africa, who had bucked the trend in Africa of employing European managerial staff in favour of local coaches. Both Samson Siasia of Nigeria and Pitso Mosimane of South Africa had performed well, with each suffering only one defeat in their 18 months in charge. Siasia has since been sacked and Mosimane is holding on by his fingernails.

At least the Nigerian Football Association accepted their failure with good grace. In South Africa the football authorities immediately announced an appeal to the Confederation of African Football. To public bemusement SAFA accepted they should have known the rules, but believed they were unfair and demanded reinstatement at Niger’s expense. The appeal was hugely unpopular in South Africa but it took the intervention of the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, to end the farce. Mbalula labelled SAFA “a disgrace” for their actions, telling the association that “the rules are in black and white. In other countries, people resign because of such failures”. There were no resignations, but the SAFA withdrew their appeal the following day and publicly congratulated Niger on their qualification.

The next Cup of Nations was scheduled to take place in Libya. With the ongoing unrest in the country it has been moved to South Africa and therefore Bafana Bafana are guaranteed to be at that tournament. The rest of the big guns in African football will have another qualification campaign to negotiate, and will hope to have learned lessons from their experiences this year.

From WSC 298 December 2011