Thriller in Florence

Editorʼs Note

We republish this article due to the imminent transfer of Fiorentinaʼs Colombian sensation Juan Guillermo Cuadarado Bello to Chelsea. He subsequently excelled at the World Cup. We will be publishing an article on the transfer shortly – a transfer that the Italian club did not want, but seemed to have little choice due to the playerʼs wishes.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 6th 2014)

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Breathtaking

Relegation threatened Sassuolo ended hosts Fiorentinaʼs admittedly slim hopes of third place and a berth in next yearʼs Championʼs League in Florenceʼs Artemio Franchi Stadium with a thrilling 4-3 win thanks to a first half hat-trick by Domenico Berardi and the winner by Nicola Sansone after 64 minutes.

Trailing 3-0 at half time Vincenzo Montellaʼs Viola left the field to deserved boos. Despite dominating possession and creating the better chances in the first 20 minutes they failed to capitalise on their advantage and looked a beaten side as they trudged off. Montella had other ideas. Sassuolo, however, took nothing for granted. “We saw Liverpool go three up yesterday,” Nicola Sansone said, “so we knew that anything could happen.”

It very nearly did. Whatever version of the Riot Act Montella favours, it worked – well almost. Former Real Betis and Valencia winger Joaquín Rodríguez made an immediate impact when brought on in the second half, triggering hopes of a comeback by winning a 56th minute penalty when fouled by Alessandro Longhi. Gonzalo Rodríguez converted it. The come-back was on? Sassuolo had other ideas. Sansone restored Sassuoloʼs three-goal cushion only for Giuseppe Rossi and Juan Cuadrado to set up an exhilarating final 15 minutes.

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The False Dawn

Fiorentina knew that they could afford no slip ups if they were to overtake Rafa Benítezʼ Napoli – already boasting an 8 point advantage with just three rounds remaining. A harsh penalty and yellow card was awarded against former Barçelona starlet Borja Valero for handball after he blocked Davide Biondiniʼs shot.

Valero protested that it was not deliberate and he had a point. He was far too close to be able to respond, but it made no difference to referee Tagliavento di Terno. 10 minutes later the Artemio Franchi Stadium was silenced when Berardi doubled the visitorsʼ lead. Sansone put him through, but despite not being Montellaʼs first choice goalkeeper Antonio Rosati has to do better than allow himself to be beaten so easily at his near post.

|With less than five minutes of the first half remaining Berardi completed his hat-trick after being put through by Simone Zaza who had hit the post from just outside the area two minutes earlier. Again Rosati should have done better. The Viola had several chances, none of which they had taken. Sassuolo deservedly led 3-0 at half time.

Chastened

Having seen Liverpool blow a three-goal cushion against Crystal Palace, Sassuolo were determined to keep the pressure up. No sooner had Gonzalo scored than Sassuolo cranked up the pressure. Only Simone Zaza will know how he failed to score on 63 minutes after Berardi gift-wrapped the chance for him. A minute later Zazaʼs blushes were spared by Sansone.

But any thoughts the visitors may have had that it was match over with 25 minutes left were quickly dispelled. Former Manchester United and Villarreal forward Giuseppe Rossi took Valeroʼs pass in his stride to score from close range.

Three minutes later the ʻremarkableʼ come-back was definitely on as Fiorentinaʼs best player on the night, Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado latched on to David Pizarroʼs long ball to delightfully chip keeper Gianluca Pegolo.

Fiorentina believed again, but try as they did they could not find another. Two minutes after Cuadradoʼs goal Rossi went close, but his shot was narrowly off-target. With time running out Berardi needed treatment. He decided to continue, but soon succumbed kicking the ball out and going down near the touchline.

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That incensed Fiorentina players – Berardi was dragged off the pitch and a brawl ensued. The Viola refused to return the ball. Berardi stayed off despite all substitutes having been used. Despite 6 minutes added time Sassuolo hang on for a famous win that took them out of the relegation places and ended the Violaʼs slim chance of Championʼs League football next season. It also gave new-comers Sassuola a fighting chance of survival.

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AFCON 2015 – Uniquely African Flavour

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 22nd 2015)

Remote Sensing

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I am watching AFCON 2015 remotely from my home in Nigeria. It has been a totally different experience. I normally attend in person if Nigeria are playing. Sadly they didnʼt qualify this time, so I am at home, missing the electricity and atmosphere of being at the venues.

I still must admit that the ongoing Championship has been a great football treat with some riveting matches defined by the athleticism of the players and competitiveness of the teams. It is very much unlike European or South American competitions that are highly technical and tactical.

This has been football with a unique African flavour – power, speed, a lot of long high balls, endless running, tight marking, fouls galore, brutish tackles, not enough creativity and surely not enough goals.

Nip and Tuck

The matches have been extremely close. Anything can still happen to change the faintly emerging picture of the first round. So far, as an indication that there are no more minnows in African football, after the first 10 matches, 6 have ended in draws. But besides that there have also been some ‘pleasant’ surprises.

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Ghana’s loss in their first match to Senegal is surely a shock. Senegal, before AFCON 2015, seemed to have been in some kind of football limbo. To defeat Ghana, therefore, is no small feat. But the Bafana Bafana is a different matter.

South Africa’s tame capitulation to Algeria in a match they could have won easily was another shocker. They had the match under full control until they lost a penalty kick that could have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion. Thereafter, they lost focus, confidence and direction, and conceded 3 quick goals to a resurgent Algeria.

The group that had 3 West African and one Central African team, produced truly very hard but very exciting thrillers. At the end of the first round of matches all the teams were inseparably tied on same points and goals – Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea. Also, as I predicted last week, the host nation, Equatorial Guinea, is struggling. They did not win either of their first two matches and both Gabon and Claude le Royʼs Congo are poised to send the hosts packing from a tournament they were controversially gifted at the eleventh hour.

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General observations

Considering the short time the host country had to prepare and host the championship, it is remarkable to observe that the grounds and playing surfaces are in reasonably good condition. Television coverage with commentaries and match analysis have also been of the highest quality and standards.

Technically, my first observations are that there is now an almost infinitesimal gap between African countries in terms of their football standards and facilities. All matches are now extremely close. Even the little Islands of Cape Verde have not lost in their first two games, although they have also not played with the same flair and confidence that made analysts at AFCON 2013 compare their playing style with FC Barçelona’s Tiki Taka.

Those comparisons may be gone but Cape Verde are still playing fearlessly in the championship and cannot be written off. With most of the teams there is a general lack of inventiveness. In front of goal, creating chances and converting them clinically continues to be a problem. Whereas, defences have been hard, physical and better organised, attacks have been uncreative, inconsistent and rather tame.

Star Quality

One bright star of the championship to me has been Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon. His performances in the two matches played against Equatorial Guinea and Congo (one win and one loss respectively) has thrown up an authentic ‘new’ African star. In the two matches, he stood out like the Northern Star. He has grown from the young man who had to be consoled by his father Pierre after Gabon’s exit when they  co-hosted three years ago. 

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Another star performer has been Mali’s left-footed and menacing striker, Bakary Sako. He is a player to watch as one of the potential stars of this championship. He plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers in England’s Championship the tier below the Premier League. This striker single-handedly kept Cameroon’s defence busy all night, harassing them at will, and exposing the weakness on the right side of their defence in particular.

Tarnished Reputations

Ghana disappointed their fans in the manner that they lost to Senegal. They fell to very poor tactics. The Israeli Avram Grant recently inherited the Black Stars from James Kwesi Appiah. Given their antecedents in football they are likely to rebound in subsequent matches. But the Black Stars last won the African Cup of Nations under Charles Kumi Gyamfi.

Only Egyptʼs legendary Hassan Shehata can rival Gyamfi for the title of the greatest ever African coach. Ghanaians need no reminding that despite reaching the final in 2010 and 1992 their last triumph was 33 years ago. They are overdue, but thatʼs no guarantee. Côte d’Ivoire know that feeling too. Their only Cup of Nations success came against Ghana in 1992. Chelseaʼs talisman Didier Drogba never tasted international glory.

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With Hervé Renard in charge the Elephants have a coach who knows that winning sensation. Renardʼs new charges woke up from slumber only after they saw their awesome reputation going up in flames. They were a goal down and their best player on the night, Gervinho, was sent off.

The shock of the possibility of losing what most had thought would be a walk-over for the most-star-studded team in the continent, jolted them into frenetic action. Down to 10 players against Guinea they played like wounded lions, equalized against all odds, redeemed their reputation and restored their chances of advancing beyond the group stage.

Great Expectations

South Africa were the tamest team in the championship after the first round of matches. How could they have sloppily let go a match they had in their pockets already? After failing to convert a penalty kick that would have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion against an Algeria that looked ragged up to that point, the tide of the match suddenly turned.

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The Desert Foxes woke up, found their rhythm, and went on a rampage, scoring three times in 45 minutes to send the Bafana Bafana back to the drawing board, wondering what had hit them.

The Indomitable Lions, my wild bet to win the championship, as usual, were very athletic, hard-working and physical. At the same time they also looked very vulnerable in defence. Cameroon’s next match will show if my pre-tournament expectations have been set too high.

Observations

Otherwise, these are my further observations and analysis:

Group A

Burkina Faso, beaten finalists in 2013, will end their 2015 journey at the group stage. Congo will qualify and be joined by either Gabon or Equatorial Guinea!

Group B

Cape Verde Islands have played robustly but not as well as they did during AFCON 2013. The surprise element that they rode on in 2013 has evaporated. Now other teams take them seriously, and their road has become harder. They are likely to disembark the AFCON 2015 train at the group stage terminus.

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Zambia have not surprised anyone. They are working hard, but struggling. Without much fire-power upfront they are finding it difficult to convert the many goal-scoring chances that they create. They are a far cry from the team that excelled when last in Equatorial Guinea just three years ago. Tunisia look like the best team in the group with DR Congo a close second. The match between them will determine which team wins the group.

Group C

This is too close to call even now. The only sure thing is that South Africa will be the first to exit in the group. Beyond that anything can still happen. Algeria and Senegal have shot up to the front, but Ghana lurk dangerously, poised to benefit from any slip-ups. When they are having a good day Ghana can defeat any of the teams. Surely, there are more surprises to come in this group!

Group D

This is the group where the teams refuse to be separated. Guinea have looked sharp and focused.

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Mali have looked interesting under the tutelage of ageless Seydou Keita. Côte d’Ivoire was shocked by the result of their first match. Even without Romaʼs Gervinho, they should still have too much talent not to come through this group.

Nevertheless, I am still keeping my money on Cameroon even though they have not played with the usual panache and confidence that create champions. Like a fine wine I am hoping they will get better with every match.

The African Cup of Nations 2015 Edition

by Seun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 15th 2015)

Embarrassing

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Itʼs that time again when Africaʼs best meet to contest which team is the continentʼs best. Of course, my first statement on AFCON 2015 must be that the defending champions will not be at the championship. How come?

It is hard for anyone to understand what happened and how it happened, but the reality is that the national team that won the 2013 African football championship undefeated, that qualified for the 2014 World Cup as one of 5 African countries, and one that boasts one of the best records out of Africa in all global football competitions, will not be at the 2015 World Cup because it failed to qualify. That’s how come!

Previous

The last time Nigeria was not at the championship it was by default – for political reasons. The military government of Nigeria of then dictator Sani Abacha resented criticism from Africaʼs icon and our continentʼs modern hero Nelson Mandela. Abacha deliberately chose not to send the Super Eagles to the championship. That was in 1996.

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The boycott backfired spectacularly. The most significant effect of Nigeria’s withdrawal that year was that the path to victory was paved for South Africa, a country fresh from the shadows of apartheid, to win their first and, to date, only African Cup of Nations championship. And Nigeria was banned from the 1998 edition as well – that will have taught the South Africans!

Absence

We canʼt blame a boycott this time. So, as Africa prepares for the football party, for many South Africans, the prospect of winning again, some 19 years after, particularly in the absence of their bogey team, Nigeria, becomes a realistic challenge! After all the Bafana Bafana have recently been playing football with uncommon determination and confidence, and have posted some very decent results, including their sterling performance against Nigeria in their last qualifying match for this edition of the African Cup of Nations. That surely ranks amongst one their best performances that I have seen since 1996.

From January 17th 16 African countries will congregate in Equatorial Guinea and a lot of eyes will be trained on the Bafana Bafana as they attempt to win their second Nations Cup. A look at the road they have to travel indicates that it will be very rough and tough. They are nestled in the same group with two of the current best football countries in Africa – Ghana and Algeria. For South Africa it may be easier to climb Mount Everest without a guide than to emerge unscathed from that group.

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Back to Nigeria briefly!

In two years, the Super Eagles have plummeted from the highest peak of African football, to the lower rungs. In the course of that tragic situation, Stephen Keshi the most successful indigenous coach in the history of the Nigerian football has fallen from grace to grass with scandalous defeats and performances that once looked remote, but have become a reality for Nigeria.

So dispirited have most followers of Nigerian football become that there is little interest in the championship. Having said that the 2015 championship will still commence this weekend and the Oracle will still peer into the crystal ball for what the immediate future holds for each of the countries.

The Oracle

Group A – Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Burkina Faso and Gabon

This is a very unpredictable and a relatively cheap group in terms of the antecedents of the countries. The only reason that Equatorial Guinea will emerge from this group is because, as hosts, they will ride on the back of home support to struggle and emerge.

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Congo will fight hard but will fade out in the second round. Burkina Faso, through hard work and endless running had their best chance of winning the championship two years ago when they went as far as the finals before being knocked out by the fire-power of Nigeria. Since then, they seem to have lost some of the fire that made their performance very refreshing and exciting the last time.

Gabon has never been such a great football country in Africa as to give any one of the serious contenders any sweatTheir only hope rests with Pierre Aubameyang. From previous records the striker in devastating form for Borussia Dortmund FC may not replicate that form in the championship. One man does not make a forest.

Group B – Zambia, DR Congo, Tunisia and Cape Verde

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Zambia in 2015 are not the same team that dazzled everyone only two championships ago. I donʼt expect them to recreate the magic they provided when last they were in Equatorial Guinea – great memories aside. 2012 was their time. It was fitting that they won the Cup of Nations for the first time in Gabon – the scene of the worst disaster in Zambian and African football, but this is not Gabon and a lot has changed in three years.

DR Congo have invested a lot in their domestic football, an investment that is yet to fully reflect in the national team. They remain dark horses even though the great coach Claude le Roy has left. Tunisia, as usual will play well, defeat the weak African teams, but falter against the West Africans. With none in this group they may succeed and emerge from the group.

Cape Verde are the hardest to predict. I do not really know what to make of this team. Two years ago we saw them display some of the most entertaining and brilliant individual football at AFCON 2013. In 2015, Africa should be ready to dance and celebrate some delightful football again.

Group C – Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, South Africa.

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What a group! This, indeed, is the Dream Group, not the Group of Death. The group includes Ghana and Algeria two of Africa’s current strongest teams. Algeria, put up Africa’s best showing at the 2014 World Cup. They appear to still be in great shape. On paper they may actually be favoured to win the championship, but against Ghana and South Africa they have equally formidable opposition.

Without question this is the group that will attract the greatest attention. I do not see Senegal emerging from this group. Ghana have the experience and maturity. Algeria have a good young team in great form. South Africa are riding on fresh enthusiasm and adrenalin. Separating them will be a huge challenge.

Group D – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Cameroon

Three West African teams come against the only team from Central Africa in the group.

In qualification, Cameroon look very exciting with several new and younger players replacing Samuel Etoʼo and some other aged players. They will emerge from here.

The other three West African teams will slug it out. I think that even without the recently retired Ivorian great Didier Drogba, they still have the leadership of Africaʼs best player Yaya Touré. Coached by recent AFCON winner Hervé Renard, Côte d’Ivoire will justify their placement as the highest ranked African team – they will stop Mali and Guinea from joining Cameroon.

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Snowy

Finally, on to my crystal ball. As I gaze into it, I see that it is misty and murky – there appears to be snow on it! Nevertheless, summoning the spirit of Tiresias, I see the following happening. I will be placing a bet as usual. Blind Tiresias has inner sight – the best seer ever. He saw that coming.

I am putting my money not on Algeria that looks to have the best team, or Côte d’Ivoire that appears to have the most mature team and superstar players, or even Ghana that may have the most complete team, but on Cameroon. New, immature, no Samuel Etoʼo, and in a relatively difficult group, Cubs or not and in the absence of Nigeria, Iʼm still backing the Indomitable Lions.

Let AFCON 2015 begin!

Segun at Wembley

Principle

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 17th 2015)

Banned

The latest edition of the African Cup of Nations starts today. It should have been hosted by Morocco, coached by one of the North-African nationʼs best ever players Zaki Badou. If Morocco had not declined to host at the the eleventh hour I would have been there covering the tournament – one that Empower-Sport supports and continues to back.

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Some believe that the governing body the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was caught between a rock and a hard place. Morocco refused to host the tournament citing fears over the outbreak of the Ebola Virus. Their concerns would have carried more weight, but for inconvenient facts. They happily hosted the World Club Championship despite Spain – home of European Champions Real Madrid having had a case of Ebola.

But the case of Guinea takes some explaining. It was one of three West-African countries at the source of the outbreak. But Guineaʼs football team was not only not banned from Morocco, they were welcomed. During the crisis Guinea did not host matches in the land Ahmed Sékou Touré led to independence. Instead, they played their qualifiers in you guessed it – Morocco. Guinea complied with Moroccoʼs conditions and not one case of Ebola was reported in Morocco.

The security conditions were plainly effective, but Morocco decided to forego hosting this edition of the African Cup of Nations. CAF President Issa Hayatou confirmed that CAF would seek the usual punishment in such circumstances. Morocco has been banned from the next two African Cup of Nations in 2017 and 2019. But Moroccoʼs withdrawal left scrambling to find a host at short notice. Their choice was appalling.

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Vicious

In 2012 Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the African Cup of Nations. We took a principled decision that we would not attend or cover matches in that country due to the appalling human rights record of its government, led by one of the longest-lasting dictators in the world Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

His grip on power has vice-like and brutal. Even before he seized power in a coup against his uncle, he was implicated in the crimes of that regime, running the notorious Black Beach Prison. Obiang seized power from his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema – Macias was tried and executed. Obiangʼs role in the crimes of Macias was discretely glossed over.

It was a big decision for us not to go – we had never chosen to do that before, but we believed that Obiangʼs dictatorship could not and should not be legitimised. We also believed that Obiang would ensure that journalists were shown a sanitised version of the country. The country should be prosperous – oil was discovered there, but its resources prop up a vicious kleptocracy.

The decision to go to Gabon alone in 2012 was a difficult one, but the right one – principle is not for sale. It was hard from a football point of view as I had a feeling about the eventual winners again – I chose Egypt in 2008 when many experts did not.

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In 2012 the team I backed to win from an early stage – Zambiaʼs Chipolopolo – was based in Equatorial Guinea. There was only one match that would take place in Gabon – the final. It was fitting that Zambia won that tournament in Zambia, but that was the only match that I saw the champions to be play.

Crimes and Misdemeanours

The crimes of Obiangʼs dictatorship remain unpunished – unacknowledged in many instances. But CAF does not exist in a vacuum and nor does football. As long as Obiang clings to power his regime should be shunned. The people of Equatorial Guinea do not need the African Cup of Nations. They need freedom and justice.

For that alone, we cannot support this edition of the African Cup of Nations, but there is another reason. Equatorial Guinea was thrown out of qualifiers for breaching the rules – fielding ineligible players.

The country was not eligible to qualify on the pitch. How could an ineligible nation be allowed to host the tournament. It devalues a great tournament that we look forward ton supporting and covering again. But some things are too important to compromise.

Shamefully Broken Promises

Editorʼs Note

Today (January 15th) Zambians will elect a new government following the death of previous President Michael Sata. We were given assurances – recorded ones – that Sataʼs government would be different. It would be open and it would honour its word. For the first time a Zambian government in the form of Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili, gave an unequivocal promise to release the report on the Gabon Plane Crash which killed the cream of Zambian football bar the current President of the Zambian Football Association the great Kalusha Bwalya. They promised to request a copy of Gabonʼs report too.

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They have had the best part of three years to keep their word. On the anniversary of the crash last year we published the story again to remind Sataʼs government of their promise – the one they had failed to honour. Like the year before it made no difference. We accept no excuses. The promise was given without coercion. There is no excuse for failing to keep it. Sataʼs government has become yet another – the sixth – to fail the Golden Generation and their families.

We hope that Zambiaʼs new government will do what all its predecessors have shamefully failed to – deliver the truth to the families of the heroes that gave their lives that terrible day in April 1993 and to the Zambian people. It is long overdue.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 13th 2013) – Updated April 27th 2014 and January 15th 2015

Promises, Promises

Imagine a national football team, say Spain in 2007, or England in 1965, or even Germany in 2013 that was tipped for great things, were killed in a plane crash before they achieved their potential. Now imagine successive governments over two decades promising to release the report of what happened and each of those governments broke their promises. And somehow, despite the tragedy, the players that replaced them reached the final of a major tournament the following year, losing narrowly.

Couldn’t happen? Well it has to last year’s African champions (2012) Zambia. 21 years ago the Zambian team, bar three regular players [Kalusha Bwalya, Johnson Bwalya (no relation) and Charly Musonda], were killed off the coast of Libreville, Gabon. Despite the changes in government over two decades the families of the victims of the Gabon Air Disaster, which robbed Africa of the most promising generation of Zambian football are still waiting for answers. Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili pledged to release the (Zambian) report last year.

“The only other issue remaining is the release of the reports for the families to know exactly what transpired,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of Zambiaʼs triumph in the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations.

“The previous government – our predecessors – didn’t release the Gabon Report, but as the new government, we are looking very positively to try and see the reports, so that we can release it to the public, so the public can know exactly what transpired here.”

When pressed on whether the new government would release the report Kambwili said: “Certainly.” I pressed further about when that would happen. “Very soon,” he said. Sadly we are still waiting. The sudden death of the President Michael Sata last year meant that a new election had to take place within 90 days. Sataʼs government has therefore become the latest to fail the Zambian people over the Gabon Air Disaster. Letʼs hope the incoming government will do the right thing at long last.

A Pressing Need

Despite Kambwili’s pledge made 35 months ago the reports have not been released, but representatives of the families are still requesting their release. Without the report the gap in our lives can never be filled until we die,” said Numba Mwila Jnr, whose father a Zambian midfielder of the same name was one the victims of the crash. Mr Mwila spoke to us in 2014 on behalf of all the victims families.

The minister, after Zambia won the cup, promised the release of the report,” he said. “We want the government to recognise our worth and presence and respect us, because our people pioneered all the glory that Zambia [the Chipolopolo] has today.”

Kambwili recognises that the people of Zambia, especially the victims’ families need to know what happened. Over two years ago the Minister told me exclusively: “As I go back I will table that with the Cabinet, because you know that the government is run by the Cabinet. As [a] Minister I will take the issue before the Cabinet and then Cabinet will approve, so we can release the report.”

Almost three years later if the issue was ever placed before Zambiaʼs Cabinet, the government that pledged open government has yet to keep its word and release the report.

The families still want answers and to understand what happened to their fathers. People went to Gabon to watch the Final, using our names instead of ourselves,” Mr Mwila said. “We want to go to Gabon as the families to see the site were our fathers died so we can know and see what happened. Always when the memorial is about to approach there is some talk, but for 20 years we have been denied the truth about what happened, despite many promises.”

The denial of the truth has continued throughout the lifetime of Sataʼs government.

Open Government

Kambwili stressed to me that Michael Sata’s government was pledged to openness and that there would be no problem releasing the report. “I can tell you something: there has been agreements,” Kambwili said. But 35 months after Kambwili’s pledge, Zambia’s Cabinet never released the report. Despite further requests for the release of the report by the victims’ families, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Why?

“All the five Presidents have pledged to release the agreements to the people, but we’ve done it as the new government,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of the Chipolpolo’s African Cup of Nations triumph in Gabon in 2012. “We’re very committed to being transparent with everything that we do, so even the Gabon Disaster Report; it will not be a problem. It will be published. The people of Zambia have a right to know what exactly transpired.”

The best part of three years later the report into the deaths of five crew members and 25 passengers, which included the cream of Zambian football has yet to be released and Sata can be added to the lis of Presidents who failed to deliver the promise.

On April 28th 1993 the Zambian Air Force’s de Haviilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo piloted by Fenton Mhone took off from Libreville International Airport. Problems had already been noticed at Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and again in Libreville where it refuelled. Work was done on the plane in Gabon, but it soon ran into trouble after departing nearly two hours late, raising questions as to whether it was flight-worthy or not. It crashed, killing all on board. Almost 22 years later the truth of that terrible night has yet to emerge.

Speculation

“Like I said I’m not privy to the Gabon Report,” Kambwili told me in our interview in February 2012. “It hasn’t been released, so I don’t have the details, but from what we were told when we went to the beach where the accident happened, the people that were there – eyewitnesses – told us that as the plane was going it started to turn like it wanted to go back and re-land at Libreville International Airport.”

It never got the chance killing perhaps the finest generation of Zambian football. A mystery that still awaits resolution began that night, fuelling conspiracy theories about the cause of that crash and who was to blame. Mhone is not the first pilot to be blamed for a crash, but his family have to live with not even knowing what exactly he was accused of doing and whether other causes have been ignored.

“In the process the plane exploded and there were some flames in the air before it went down, so it is difficult for me to say that the plane was not flight-worthy, or it wasn’t in good condition until I read the report,” Kambwili said. “That would be speculation.” The report still has not been released – the speculation continues.

Still Waiting for Answers

Nearly three years after Kambwiliʼs pledge – yet to be kept – the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster are still waiting for answers. The report has not been released and it will not be by Sataʼs government now. But this is not the only report on the terrible crash never to see the light of day. The Gabonese Ministry of Defence also investigated the causes of the crash and produced a report.

Its preliminary report suggested pilot error, but the full report and its conclusions have never been released for public scrutiny. Until told of its existence by me, even Kambwili was unaware of it. “No, no, no,” he said. “We haven’t seen it. As we are here, the Vice President is going to pay a courtesy call on the President and probably I can ask him to find out if they have got a report that was done from there.”

When assured that there was no doubt that the Gabonese investigated the crash themselves and produced a report Kambwili expressed interest in it. “We will try and follow it up and I will ask the Vice President when he pays a courtesy call on his brother [Gabon’s President] to find out if there is any report and if there is any report we will try and ask for it, so we can compare it to the report that is going to be produced,” Kambwili said. Both reports have not been produced.

Football Unites

The twentieth anniversary of the crash passed in 2013. Neither the Zambian or Gabonese reports on the disaster had been released – they still havenʼt been. Sheila Coleman, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, supports the Zambian footballersʼ familiesʼ fight for justice.

This sad story of the loss of so many lives will resonate with anybody involved in the Hillsborough Disaster,” Ms Coleman said. “Twenty years on and families are still seeking the truth – sound familiar? Football supporters around the world should support the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster in their fight to establish the facts surrounding the deaths of those young talented Zambian footballers.”

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extended solidarity to the victimsʼ families. Their fight for justice over the Hillsborough Disaster took a quarter of a century before justice began to emerge. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extends itʼs support to the families of the victims of the Gabon Air Disaster,” Ms Coleman said. “Although continents separate us, we are united by our struggles.” Pity Kambwiliʼs promises on behalf of the late President Sataʼs government proved hollow.

Among those who lost their lives just off the coast from Libreville on April 28th 1993 was goal-machine Godfrey Ucar Chitalu, whose feat of 116 goals scored in 1972 remains unsurpassed despite Lionel Messiʼs achievement in 2012. Chitalu was the coach of that promising Zambian team, which included perhaps the best ever goal-keeper to represent the Chipolopolo, Efford Chabala.

They died representing their country over two decades ago. Their families and the nation still await answers. The new President has the opportunity to put right a terrible wrong. The election is too close to call. Edgar Lungu of Sataʼs party is fractionally ahead, but the oppositionʼs Hakainde Hichilema cannot be ruled out as Guy Scottʼs interim Presidency reaches its end. Whether Lungu or Hichilema assumes the Presidency Zambian football and its people need answers about the about the Gabon Air Disaster. It is long overdue.

Tatters

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 10th 2015)

Reputation

Carlos Velasco Carballoʼs reputation may never recover. Having refereed against type at Fortalezaʼs Estádio Castelão in the controversial hackfest of Brasil v Colombia, Velasco Carballo was savaged by Diego Maradona and given FIFAʼs equivalent of a vote of confidence. FIFA refused to give Juan Camilo Zuñiga Mosquera a retrospective red card or rescind Thiago Silvaʼs yellow card.

Zuñiga should have been sent off, but so should several others. It was baffling that a referee with a reputation as a disciplinarian had refereed this match as if he had forgotten his cards in the dressing room. It is also a great pity as Velasco Carballo, contrary to Maradonaʼs opinion is actually a very good referee – one who had steadily earned the top matches with stellar performances. That reputation is all but undone by one match.

He officiated his first top flight match a decade ago – Barçelona v Sevilla. Velasco Carballo decided to concentrate exclusively on refereeing in 2010. He had quietly built up a reputation as a firm but fair referee – one who managed to combine a disciplinarian streak with letting the game flow. This was quite an achievement.

Careful

He was a studious referee too – one who knew the foibles of those he was refereeing. Nobody pulled the wool over his eyes, so what happened to him on July 4th 2014? Did the occasion get to him? The refereeing of that match took some explaining then – it still does. There is no evidence that he was fazed by big occasions.

Velasco Carballo refereed his first international match in 2008 after earning the appropriate FIFA badge. The 2010-11 season was his first refereeing past the qualifiers for the Championʼs League. He ended that season with a high profile match – the Europa League Final in Dublin. Radamel Falcao – then playing for Porto – set a Europa League (UEFA Cup) record for goals scored in the competition.

Falcao, who would strongly criticise Velasco Carballo over the match in Fortaleza, scored the only goal of that match. It was a match punctuated by fouls and cards. 42 fouls resulted in eight yellow cards. This was typical Velasco Carballo. The native of Madrid is not allowed to referee any match involving Madrid teams, but his performance in that season marked him as one to watch.

Against His DNA

His performance in Fortaleza was incredible. There were 54 fouls in that match – well penalised ones. He brandished four yellow cards and no red cards. It required more than 40 offences bbefore he showed his first card and that was not for a violent challenge. There were also offences that were not penalised despite being under his nose (see Pockmarked at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/pockmarked/).

The failure to enforce the rules also contributed to a serious injury suffered by Neymar. Zuñiga ploughed into Neymarʼs back. Whether he intended serious injury or not is immaterial. It was a ludicrous challenge – one that would never have been tolerated, or most likely even tried, if Velasco Carballo had been allowed to referee as he normally would have.

Zuñiga quickly apologised. The players have no problem with each other, but anxious to reach the ball or not these are the challenges that must not be allowed or encouraged even tacitly, as lack of consequences does. When Brasil played Colombia in a friendly in the USA, they embraced each other, but that match was scarred by the quarter-final in Fortaleza – a dirty business. Juan Guilermo Cuadrado Bello was sent off.

Form

The Europa League Final was far from the only match that Velasco Carballo refereed in his strict manner. He has a habit of showing cards, including sending players off. During the 2011-12 season in Spain he issued 16 red cards in 19 matches that he refereed. He was Spainʼs representative at Euro2012, refereeing the opening match between co-hosts Poland and Greece.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos received a second yellow card for fouling Polandʼs Rafal Murawski just before half time. Even that card was harsh, but the previous one beggared belief. Just before being sent off he received his first yellow card for allegedly fouling Robert Lewandowski, but the replays showed that Papastathopoulos had actually won the ball cleanly and fairly.

It was no foul and therefore it could not have been a yellow card. If he did not receive a yellow card then, he would not have been sent off for fouling Murawski and Greece would still have had eleven players on the pitch.

To paraphrase the great author Oscar Wilde: “To give one yellow card wrongly or harshly may be considered a misfortune. To give two is carelessness”! He also sent off Polandʼs goal-keeper Wojciech Szczesny in the same match.

So what happened in Fortaleza? Why had he abandoned the habits of a lifetime and done so on an even bigger stage? We are yet to get a satisfactory answer. Tolerating over forty offences before brandishing a single yellow card resulted in a display that was alien to the Spaniardʼs DNA.

And what of Velasco Carballo himself? FIFA say that there was no directive to referees to spare the rod and spoil the spectacle. But why would a stern referee officiate so against type? They also failed to take any sanction against the Spaniard for his bizarre performance that surely would have followed if it was all his fault. Would he return to form free from the ʻdirectiveʼ or was Fortaleza a taste of things to come?

Pockmarked

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 9th 2015)

Licence Revoked

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Colombiaʼs Golden Boot winner James Rodríguez Rubio – a joy to watch during Brasilʼs World Cup – was denied the right to play when Brasil and Colombia met in the quarter-final. Rodríguez was targeted as was Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and also Neymar in retaliation later. A match that should have been a mouthwatering tie was pockmarked by a tournament record 54 fouls.

Arguably the challenge that ended Neymar’s tournament would not have happened if control had been taken by the officials and maintained. This was a match that illustrated the need for the rules of the game to be respected and enforced. Without it matches like this descend into chaos.

Rodríguez and los Cafeteros lit up the World Cup previously with their delightful attacking play and infectious joy they were experiencing while playing. They were up to that point the only team to have won all their matches in that tournament in regulation time. They and football fans were robbed as their licence to entertain was revoked and cynical fouling and other cheating rewarded instead.

Responsibility

But Colombia bears responsibility too. In the first 20 minutes they outfouled Brasil, but the nature of those fouls was interesting. They were nowhere near as cynical or brutal as what followed. Brasil deserved their lead in that period, but their fouling even then was cynical and it was no coincidence that the main target throughout was Colombiaʼs star Rodriguez with the entertaining Cuadrado not far behind.

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When asked about their World Cup experience Sevilla striker Carlos Bacca said “I am happy”. Despite their best performance ever in the World Cup Finals, this team was capable of more. They were genuine contenders. They did very well, but they were robbed of the chance to do even better. And football was the ultimate loser – cheated of a good example leading to success, just four years after the disgraceful exhibition in the World Cup Final of Africaʼs World Cup.

Blatant

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James Rodríguez was denied protection from referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, normally a strict no-nonsense official. Brasil flouted many rules, including distance on free kicks without consequence or sanction. Colombia naïvely largely observed them until they cottoned on to the fact that Rodríguez in particular had been targeted by a cynical Selecão, lacking Rodríguezʼ ability with few exceptions.

The ultimate insult was Rodríguez being booked for a tackle that bore no comparison to the hacks he had endured. David Luiz scored a fantastic goal from the resulting free-kick. Interestingly, Colombia had observed the rules on that free-kick. Their wall stood behind Velasco Carballoʼs white line and did not encroach.

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Compare that to Brasilʼs conduct at a free-kick taken by Rodríguez in the first half. The free-kick – admittedly controversially given against Fernandinho over a 50-50 challenge with Victor Ibarbo Guerrero with both players potentially at fault. That decision went Colombiaʼs way, but once given the rules seemed to be discarded.

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Note the position of officials as Rodríguez strikes the ball and those of the two defenders who had plainly rushed out of the wall long before it was taken. Even the line drawn by the referee was invisible as the wall had encroached anyway. Some payers never stood on the line, let alone behind it. The encroaching began as soon as the referee turned his back on Brasilʼs wall.

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Nevertheless, it was obvious that there had been massive encroachment when it was taken. Both Velasco Carballo and his assistant referee cannot have failed to see it. So what were the consequences for this blatant cheating? Nothing. Not a yellow card – not even the free-kick being re-taken. Not even talking to. Play continued as if nothing had happened.

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The Shameful Precedent

And it wasnʼt Brasilʼs first offence of that nature. Fernadinho had brought Rodríguez down near the half-way line previously. Rodríguez wanted to take the free-kick quickly, but was prevented from getting up by Fernadinho and more so Paulinho, who had to be pushed out from in front of Rodríguez.

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The much-maligned Fred – less than a yard away – tried and failed to intercept it when it was taken. Ibarbo received it, but seeing the referee running towards him thought that Velasco Carballo had called play back. The result of such unsporting play? Brasil got possession and counter-attacked from it. All of this unsporting conduct took place under Velasco Carballoʼs nose. He did nothing. No card, no talking to, no warning – nothing. Small wonder it was repeated.

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And then there was Thiago Silvaʼs shameful shove on Cuadrado with the ball yards away – unsporting conduct to put it mildly. The Brasilian captain should have been booked then with less than 40 minutes played. He was far from the only player to deserve a card by then. Worse was to follow – far worse.

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