The Final Chapter

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 15th 2015)

Afcon 2015 – New African Champions

After an exciting three weeks of pulsating but technically mediocre festival of football in Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants of la Côte d’Ivoire have become the new Champions of African football. They took the coveted trophy that was relinquished, rather humiliatingly, by Nigeria. The Super Eagles had exited at the qualifying stage of the championship.

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It may have taken well over 20 years for their trophy drought to end, but when it finally did the whole of Côte d’Ivoire exploded in an orgy of celebration as the government declared a national public holiday and lavishly rewarded the gallant heroes with houses and cash gifts. It was a far cry from the disgraceful treatment Ivorian players received from former dictator Robert Guéï after a poor performance in Afcon 2000.

History

The final match against Ghanaʼs Black Stars created razor-sharp pressure for both teams. Tactically, they cancelled each other out for 120 minutes and the match had to be settled by penalty kicks – again. That match marked the third time the Elephants played in the final of the Nations Cup and did not score a goal. It also marked the third time a final involving the Ivorians had gone to penalties.

The recourse to penalty kicks against these opponents historically favoured the Ivorians. In 1992 they won the championship for the first time against Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out that ended 11-10. They had tasted defeat in a penalty shoot-out too when Egypt won the first of their unprecedented three consecutive titles in 2006.

Two Sunday night’s ago the elements were on the side of Côte d’Ivoire once again, as ‘lightning struck twice on the same spot’. 

Ghana were left stranded on the banks of misfortune as they threw away an early two-goal lead, due to nerves, and lost 8-9 in the end, continuing a trophy drought that has lasted 33 years. The Black Stars have lost their last three finals, twice on penalties to the Ivorians and once to Egypt in 2010

Apart from the penalty shoot-out the final match was tension-soaked but technically ordinary and boring – a true reflection of the entire championship.

The Special Generation

Winning the championship was momentous for Côte d’Ivoire as it marked the end of an era for several of their ageing generation of players, some of whom have been among the best footballers in the history of African football. Between them, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have won the African player of the year award 7 times. Add to that other great players playing at a high level in Europe, including Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and so on.

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It is unfortunate that Drogba chose to retire from international football on the eve of the championship. The victory would have capped a very illustrious and unprecedented career that had only the African Cup of Nations title as the missing trophy in his rich chest.

Scant Consolation

Overall, Ghana looked the slightly better and more organised team, even though Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten did not lose any of their matches throughout the championship. However, the Ghanaians were the more entertaining team during the tournament. Consequently, it is not surprising that the player of the tournament came from the Ghanaian team.

Christian Atsu, currently on loan from Chelsea to Everton got more opportunities under Avram Grant than he has from José Mourinho or Roberto Martínez in England. The fleet, left-footed player operated from the right side of the Ghanaian attack, scoring two of Ghana’s three goals in the quarter-finals and constantly terrorised the Ivorian defence during the final. He deserved the award. He was a bright star in a very grey constellation.

Memories

Finally, the Championship will be remembered not for memorable matches but for other reasons: how the championship ended up in a country that did not even qualify for the championship and was under suspension by CAF; how the terraces were empty during most of the matches except those involving the host country; how Morocco were suspended (and rejected the suspension) for two tournaments for refusing to host the event due to genuine health fears; how Tunisia were suspended for failing to apologise for accusing CAF of bias and complicity when they were openly ‘robbed’ by a referee who only got a slap-on-the-wrist six-month suspension, for his shameful handling of the match in question; how supporters of the host country threw decorum to the dogs and unleashed mayhem on players and supporters of an opposing team with the shameful scenes watched on television all over the world; how both CAF and FIFA Presidents condemned the Western media for ‘exaggerating’ reports of the incidents that smeared the organization of the championship because they needed to make more friends than enemies amongst national federations with their elections coming, and so on.

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At the end of Afcon 2015, the championship simply could not produce or showcase the best version of African football as well as authentic new stars to illuminate African football into the immediate future. Letʼs hope that Afcon 2017 will supply both. The country that will host that tournament will be decided by CAF in April, following the withdrawal of Libya as hosts due to security concerns.

Next Time the Fire-power

Four countries that expressed an interest met CAFʼs conditions to host the tournament. Beaten finalists Ghana last hosted in 2008. They also hosted and won the tournament twice previously. The first time was in 1963 – the first appearance of the Black Stars in the tournament. That was the first of three triumphs under the legendary African coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Only Egyptʼs Hassan Shehata has matched him, although Hervé Renard has made history already and has power to add.

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The next time Ghana hosted and won was in 1978, the only victory of the Black Stars not under Gyamfiʼs supervision. Fred Osam Duodu was the successful coach. The most successful team in African history, the Pharaohs have won the trophy seven times. Egyptʼs last success – qualification too – was in 2010. They hosted and won in 2006.

Their fierce rivals the Desert Foxes of Algeria have only one title to their name. They hosted and won in 1990. That leaves Gabon. They have never won the trophy. Their best achievement was reaching the quarter-final twice, in 1996 when they went out on penalties to beaten finalists Tunisia and when they co-hosted in 2012. Gabon has never hosted in their own right.

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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.

Despicable People and the World Cup (Part 4)

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Editor’s Note:

These articles were originally published by us as one article. We have split the original into four articles for ease of reading. We think it timely to remind readers, especially now, that football’s greatest tournament has been subject to political exploitation by despicable people previously. It is fitting that despite his interference Francisco Franco never lived to see Spain become the dominant force in football – consecutive European Championships and a World Cup – let alone benefit from it. There must be no return to such exploitation of the world’s most popular sport.

Derek Miller

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by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)

Suspension

After an exhibition of enthralling football in México, Brasil were champions of the world for a record third time. The country forgot its problems to celebrate, but it should never have been allowed to happen the way it did. The country’s dictator General Emílio Garrastazu Médici had no right to interfere in football matters – organisation and control over Brasilian football was the domain of that country’s FA.

Médici’s interference was a flagrant breach of FIFA’s Charter. João Saldhana was the coach and had a very good record – he had not lost in six matches in charge. Plainly, he was sacked for non-footballing reasons and he should not have suffered such outrageous interference. His record did not deserve such abuse of the rules. It was a flagrant breach of FIFA’s Charter – sadly far from the first time that FIFA did not enforce its Charter when dictators came courting.

The Brasilian FA could not stand up to the fascist despot Médici. The players could not either. It is the nature of vile dictatorships to rule through fear and torture. However, FIFA have no such excuse. They could have told the dictator and the Brasilian FA that they would suspend Brasil from the 1970 World Cup if Médici did not stop his interference. They could have made other demands too, but did not. It was not unusual for sporting bodies to turn a blind eye at the time.

Without being in the tournament Brasil could not win it and without that Médici could not exploit the win. Médici needed the win to justify his dictatorship – FIFA therefore had the power to uphold its Charter and did not. It was yet another example of a dictator being allowed to flout the rules and reap undeserved rewards by shamefully manipulating the power of football. Médici had learned well from Mussolini’s use and abuse of the power of football.

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Propaganda

A delighted Médici received the team and enthusiastically greeted some of the greatest players ever to play the beautiful game. They had little choice. Médici took credit for the triumph and used it for propaganda purposes. He also used it to distract attention from the torture and executions, especially in prisons. Brasil’s military dictatorships ended in 1985 after more than two decades in power. He was perhaps the worst of the despicable people that Pelé referred to.

They only had one World Cup success to exploit and Médici proved adept at using it to bolster the popularity of his government – a time that the gap between rich and poor increased significantly. Despite economic growth, the benefits were not distributed fairly and poverty became a real problem. And then there were the human rights abuses.

People disappeared, were tortured or murdered. Médici is remembered now as the most cynical and brutal of Brasil’s military tyrants. He died in October 1985, having lived just long enough to see the military rejected by the Brasilian people who voted overwhelmingly against their choice and in favour of Tancredo Neves. His military successors relaxed the brutality, but there was no doubt that Brasil was under the control of a military junta with no respect for even the most basic of rights.

Restoration of Rights

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Civilian rule had been restored for less than a decade before another World Cup triumph was delivered to the football-loving people of the biggest nation in South America. It was the first of three consecutive appearances in the World Cup final itself – two of which would result in victory. But the restoration of democracy came at price – a high one.

The amnesty laws that paved the way for elections gave the perpetrators of gross abuses of human rights on both sides of the political divide immunity from prosecution. Many years later, with the spectre of military coups receded, the crimes of the past demand a hearing. One in particular affects the integrity of the forthcoming World Cup, the shocking death of journalist Vladimir Herzog in custody in October 1975 in São Paulo. We covered this story previously and will do so again.

In the fourteen years between hosting the World Cup for the first time and the military coup the country celebrated two World Cup triumphs and in the seventeen years since the restoration of democracy in 1985 and Asia’s first World Cup in 2002 they celebrated another two triumphs and suffered a defeat in the final as well.

The military dictatorship delivered poverty: repression and misery along with one World Cup win in twenty-one years in power. Readers will draw their own conclusions from that. Back in 1970 Brasil needed the joy of the World Cup triumph to forget the horrors of Médici’s rule even for a few days. The tyrant needed football far more than it needed him.

Despicable

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He used and abused the triumph for his own ends, but some people knew Médici for the tyrant he was. Pelé took an England player aside during the 1970 World Cup and told him: “Our country is ruled by despicable people.” He was criticised by some for not using the platform fame had given him to speak out publicly, but many who had did not live to tell the tale.

Médici was neither the first nor last despot to use the World Cup to serve his own political needs. The next two World Cups would include two further attempts – one of which would succeed and the other would demonstrate the the consequences for ordinary people. And the following two would involve attempts to escape that unwanted legacy of the World Cup.

It remains an outrage that football did not prevent it from happening again after Benito Mussolini had shamelessly exploited its power in the 1930s. It is perhaps even worse that Médici was not the last dictator to benefit from abusing the power of football for his own ends on the world stage. The gross abuses of human rights under the vile dictatorship of the now universally reviled General Jorge Videla in Argentina were known about long before the fall of the junta.

Nevertheless, despite knowledge of Videla’s crimes, the tournament allowed to take place in Argentina when it was subject to such use and abuse. Why? How did FIFA learn so little from allowing the dictator Mussolini to host and fix in 1934 and Médici to use the power of footballing success. Football has a social responsibility – one that should have been understood and embraced after Mussolini was allowed to utilise the power of the sport. Videla should never have been given the chance to follow il Duce’s example.

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