By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 2nd 2015)
The quarter-final matches of the ongoing 2015 AFCON lived up to expectations in terms of drama. Ghana’s match against Guinea was a stroll in the park. Following that performance the Black Stars now look almost set to break the over three decades jinx of not winning Africa’s most coveted football championship. Their next match is against hosts Equatorial Guinea, but the way that they reached the semi-finals will not have been lost on Avram Grant or his side and hopefully CAF too.
The other matches were brutal physical contests that rendered impotent any talk of serious football tactics. The most refreshing aspect of the matches is the avalanche of goals that came tumbling down from the plateau of earlier mediocre performances made worse by poor finishing in front of goal. In the past few days the floodgates have opened and the drizzle of goals has started to pour down.
The match with the least number of goals, between hosts Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia now threatens the integrity of the competition. Indeed, in the opinion of my friend and co-journalist, Satish Sekar, the main feature writer of Empower-Sports magazine, CAF’s reaction to the referee of that very controversial match Rajindraparsad Seechurn will impact, one way or the other, on the rest of the championship and even beyond.
For a team that was still under suspension for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier competition, it was highly suspicious why CAF swallowed its pride, disregarded the consequences of treating its own punitive measure as a minor inconvenience and awarded the hosting rights to Equatorial Guinea – of all the countries that showed interest to host it.
It was a step too far for Satish. He normally attends the African Cup of Nations and had planned to go this time until Morocco withdrew and the tournament was moved to Equatorial Guinea. Remember that Morocco had withdrawn from hosting the competition only a few weeks before due to the Ebola virus scare, and CAF had sought for an alternative volunteer host country.
Satish believed that awarding the tournament to that nation was simply wrong – it rewarded an ineligible country for cheating. To maintain integrity in football, especially in these times when corruption and more has reared its ugly head in the beautiful game, CAF had to maintain its ban on Equatorial Guinea.
Lack of Pedigree
That’s how this small Central African country, without any deep or rich pedigree in African football, became last-minute participants in the championship, replacing Morocco. And it should be remembered that Equatorial Guinea has only ever qualified as hosts – never on merit on the football field. In 2012 they had earned their spot as legitimate hosts. This time they were not eligible, because they had fielded an ineligible player and been rightly punished for that transgression.
For some observers CAF was setting itself up for a possible disaster by ignoring their own rules. Last Sunday night that fear became real. The rest of the world outside Africa is watching to see what happens next. I did not watch the match. I was high above the Sahara desert heading to Europe at the time. By the following morning the reports of that ignoble match were everywhere.
The highlight of the reports was that the Tunisian players had chased the Mauritian referee after the match and were going to assault him but for the intervention of security personnel. Also, George Leekens, the Belgian coach of Tunisia, affectionately known as the Carthage Eagles, was so outraged that, at the press conference after the match, he described the officiating of the match as the worst in the 45 years of his experience in football.
I quickly rang up my friend, Satish Sekar, who had been following the matches with a microscopic lens. He would be neutral and give me a professional perspective. Satish was scathing in his remarks, to say the least. A football purist he dislikes poor officiating and the failure to use technology to correct bad or even mistaken decisions with a passion.
“This is the worst case of highway robbery – in football – I have ever seen”, he said. “Dick Turpin (the notorious 18th Century highway robber) was hanged for less! What happened was simply unbelievable. CAF made a mistake. Why did they take the match to Equatorial Guinea? In the first place they were ineligible because they were under a ban by the same CAF for fielding an ineligible player”.
Satish believed that a disaster would follow that decision. Incredibly the hosts had complained previously that CAF did not want them to progress. But what of Seechurn?
“The referee was either completely appalling and incompetent, or, the match is a set up”, Satish said. “It is hard to believe anyone could be that bad. It wasnʼt just one bad, or even terrible – there were several. The Tunisians were robbed. It is even more painful for them because they had a good chance to win the cup and had done enough to win in normal time”.
The phantom penalty was a terrible decision made even more sinister in appearance by the timing. The hosts were on the way out when a blatant dive resulted not in a deserved yellow card, but a penalty. Adding insult to injury Seechurn refused to enforce the laws of the game in extra time as well and tolerated outrageous time-wasting at every opportunity once the hosts had taken the lead.
“The decent thing for CAF to do is order that the match be replayed”, Satish said, “but I know that will never happen. But they need to do something about a referee with such a dodgy record. Information is now readily available about the man’s record in previous matches too. CAF and the championship’s integrity are at stake. That referee should be sent back home in disgrace”.
A catalogue of ʻErrorsʼ
Satish went on to provide a vivid description of what happened at the tail end of a match that the Tunisians had wrapped up in normal time, and how they were robbed with some disgraceful and dubious officiating. If indeed, the situation is as bad as Satish, Leekens and many others here in Europe describe, why has CAF not done anything publicly to sanction the referee?
Have the Tunisians become the scapegoats, the sacrificial lamb needed to make the competition respectful and justify CAF’s decision to bring the competition there? Only if Equatorial Guinea continue to win will spectators fill the stands that have so far been full of empty seats at all venues except where they are playing.
The referee’s penalty kick decision was an undeserved gift. Even television replays have shown that there was no offence committed deserving of a penalty kick. What is clear, however, is that the end of the road is near for Equatorial Guinea. Their hopes of winning it all should end when they meet Ghana next.
It will be a great injustice if a team that has played some of the poorest football in the championship, has no pedigree, which got to this stage with the help of a dodgy referee, gets to the final and possibly wins it. Ghana are favourites to get to the finals where they are likely to meet old foes Côte d’Ivoire.
However, a hard match against DR Congo stands between Hervé Renardʼs team and the final. A Ghana versus Côte d’Ivoire would truly be a terrific final, a befitting climax to a dramatic feast of African football – a repeat of the 1992 final, during which the Elephants beat the Black Stars on penalties. It may also restore some badly needed integrity to this edition of the African Cup of Nations.