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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The Real Fireworks Begin Now

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 30th 2015)

Easy Gone

Segun at Wembley

The Indomitable Lions are out as the boys are now being separated from the men in AFCON 2015. As a result, I have also lost my bet about who will win the tournament. Truth be told I did not think they had the capacity to win the tile, but being the ‘gambling’ man, I had put my kobo on Cameroon to beat the odds and ‘steal’ the title.

I failed because, last Wednesday, on a dramatic night that left much of Africa breathless with excitement, drama, suspense and a little controversy, my young hard-working Indomitable Lions were halted.

The last set of matches at the group stage were always going to be very critical, particularly since the games had been extremely close since the championship started with very few goals and too many drawn encounters. Remarkably, 10 of the first 16 matches ended in draws with an overall average of less than two goals per match.

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Jockeying for Position

Group D of the championship has been particularly interesting because of the way the position of second team to qualify in the group had to be decided. La Côte d’Ivoire ended as undisputed leader. The Indomitable Lions finished bottom of the group. Guinea and Mali had ended with exactly the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored. There was nothing between them.

One day after the matches, ballots were drawn in the boardroom and Guinea won. That has now generated fresh debate over the propriety of such a rule that takes the process of winning away from the field to the boardroom.

Many football purists, myself included, now suggest that such decisions should be based on a process that must start and end on the field of play, and not by the drawing of lots. I believe the issue will be looked at again after the championship by CAF. But that was not the only drama of the last group matches. Each group had plenty of it own.

Decided

In Group A, as predicted, Equatorial Guinea, even as hosts, struggled, rode on the back of unprecedented local crowd support, won only one match. That was enough to see them join Claude le Royʼs Congo as the two teams from the group. Congo were the best and most consistent team. They were well organised, played robustly and defeated both Burkina Faso and Gabon.

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Group B was also very closely fought. Also, only one team won a match in the entire group. Tunisia defeated Zambia. All the others matches ended in draws. Cape Verde were not the same team that caught everyone’s imagination in 2013. They drew all three of their matches. DR Congo also drew all their three matches but scored one goal more to edge out Cape Verde on goals aggregate. Zambia were a shadow of the victorious all-conquering 2012 African champions. They were the only team that lost a match in the group.

It is in Group C that there was the greatest drama on the field of play. This was the only group that had teams winning and losing matches, and with plenty of shocks and surprises. The results in this group confirm that football is not mathematics. Surprisingly, Ghana lost their first match to Senegal. Shockingly, after their World Cup heroics, Algeria defeated South Africa, but lost to Ghana and Senegal could only draw with South Africa.

At the wire, dramatically, Ghana that were at the bottom of the table with South Africa going into the last match, having surged to the top after a pulsating match that saw them oscillate from the brink of defeat to earn a clear victory over a determined, hard-fighting but porous Bafana Bafana.

The South Africans are now left totally confused about what to do with their football to take it to commanding heights. They are left wondering how things that looked so bright going to Equatorial Guinea could suddenly turn so dark in the end.

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Senegal had comfortably and confidently topped the group going into the final set of matches, but suddenly found themselves losing out completely after a dramatic defeat by the Desert Foxes in their last match. When the final whistle was blown they were out, and their conquerors, Algeria, were in with Ghana.

But the drama did not end there. Who was the group leader? It took careful interpretation of the rules of the competition to determine who came first in the group. Ghana emerged finally as group leaders. Algeria that had the same number of points but higher aggregate of goals (having scored more goals in the other matches), but they came second.

It was the result of the match between Ghana and Algeria, which Ghana won, that clinched it. In my humble opinion, the aggregate of the goals should apply ahead of the result of the match between two teams in a group competition – it is a mini league after all, so all the matches played should count first.

I have already looked at the drama in Group D where, as in group B, only one team won a match – Côte d’Ivoire. The team they defeated on the final day of the group matches, Cameroon, were instantly knocked out.

Mali and Guinea could not be separated, not by points, or goals, or even the result between them. That’s why lots were cast and Guinea ‘won’ to join Côte d’Ivoire into the quarter-finals, leaving behind a fuming and disappointed Malian team. However, the dust of the group stage matches has settled.

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Narrowed

The gap between the traditional African football ‘giants’ and the rest has narrowed. Predicting the outcome of matches is becoming increasingly more difficult these days. This is very good for the game. Having said that, somehow, only a few of the traditional ‘giants’ are still firmly in the race for the title.

Of all the teams only two have won the championship more than once. Ghana has won it 4 times in 1963 – their first appearance – retaining it in 1965 before losing in the final to Congo-Kinshasa (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The Black Stars, as Ghana are affectionately known, won it for the third and fourth times in 1978 and 1982 respectively.

The Black Stars lost in the finals of 1992 to Côte d’Ivoire and to Egypt in 2010 the last of three successive triumphs for Egypt – the Pharaohs have been deposed, failing to qualify for the last three editions of the African Cup of Nations. Ghana have reached at least the semi-finals in the last five editions. DR Congo, masquerading as Zaire then won it for the second time in 1974. Zambia were the beaten finalists then

Four quarter-finalists have triumphed once – Congo in 1972 at Mali’s expense, Algeria defeated Nigeria in 1990, Côte d’Ivoire in 1992 and Tunisia beat the intended hosts of this edition Morocco in 2004. The others – Guinea and Equatorial Guinea – are new kids on the block.

Final Thoughts

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Finally, once again, the matches have been very competitive, hard fought, full of drama and exciting, but the standard of play, which is relatively low, must be of concern to those monitoring the development of football in the continent.

There is definitely a dearth of emerging exceptional talent from Africa as reflected in the ongoing championships. And legends of African football Didier Drogba and Samuel Etoʼo have hung up their international boots.

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.

Africa’s Finest

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 7th 2015)

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Prestigious African Footballers

Football without super stars is like tea without sugar. We are in the season of celebrating the super-stars of African football – the players whose light has shone brightest in the football constellation. Tomorrow the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will elect its winner of the prestigious African Footballer of the Year Award for 2014.

The event, which takes place in Lagos has become very significant for the players because it shoots their status and profile sky high onto a new pedestal of respect and prosperity. It can earn players moves to glamorous clubs, or in some cases boost their wages and prestige. It also raises the profile of African football outside the continent.

Surprises

Vincent Enyeama 1

In the final list of five players for the 2014 award there are a few surprise inclusions. The first is Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama. It is not common to find goalkeepers listed for the African award. If it were not so, there is no reason why Vincent should not have been listed, or have even won the award, in 2013.

His stellar performances in the French league for Lille FC, and for Nigeria during the African Cup of Nations, leading the Super-Eagles to only their third triumph has earned him more than enough credit to merit an indisputable place amongst Africa’s best players. But goalkeepers tend to be overlooked. Just look at what happened last year.

Vincent Enyeama Smiling

The belated observation made by a few of us – myself included – who commented on his omission last year may have precipitated the present attention on him (and possibly on other goalkeepers in the next few years).

Keepers

Goalkeepers occasionally used to be nominated, but their contributions have been neglected in awards. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since the last one was even nominated, let alone won. Before Enyeama’s recent nomination the last goalkeeper to be considered – and he did not win it – was Joseph Antoine Bell of Cameroon in 1989.

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And before Bell, the last keeper to be nominated was Zaki Badou – recognised by CAF in 2006 as one of Africaʼs best 200 players over the previous half century. Badou is the current manager of Morocco. It is his second spell in charge of the Atlas Lions. Sadly Moroccoʼs decision to refuse to host the African Cup of Nations has denied him the opportunity to shine.

Badou is one of Moroccoʼs greatest ever players. In 1986 Badou won the African Footballer of the Year Award, then by France Football Magazine. CAF organised its own award in 1992, which competed with the France Football Magazine award for two years (from 1994 onwards only CAFʼs award remains).

Badou played in Spain for RCD Mallorca and proved that his 1986 award was no fluke. He moved to Spain that year. Badou won the prestigious Zamora Trophy – the award for the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest goals to games played ratio – for the 1988-89 season. As a manger he had success with his former club Wydad in Morocco and took the Atlas Lions to the final of the 2004 African Cup of Nations. Badou has pedigree.

Zaki Badou at Press Conference

Shamefully Overlooked

However Cameroonian great Thomas Nkono showed that goalkeepers who excel can be rewarded. Nkono won the African Footballer of the Year Award twice – 1979 and 1981. Sandwiched between his triumphs was my best year in this competition. I came second to his Canon Yaoundé team-mate and strangely unheralded (outside of Africa) Cameroonian great Jean Manga-Onguéné.

I canʼt complain as he led his team to the Cameroonian League title and African Champions Cup. Badou was not the first Moroccan keeper to win the award. Chabab Mohammédiaʼs Ahmed Faras beat African legend Roger Milla into second place in 1975.

Segun at Wembley

The good thing is that Vincent Enyeama’s nomination has reawakened interest in the performances of African goalkeepers, which has often been overlooked in favour of strikers or midfielders.

That may also explain why all of the players that have won the award since its inception (except for the goalkeepers listed earlier) have been goal scorers (strikers and midfielders). No defender has ever won the award despite the whole army of absolutely brilliant defenders in the continent’s history. If Enyeama wins it could therefore produce a change of attitude and appreciation of the finest exponents of other positions.

Surprise

Enyeama is not the only surprise on this yearʼs list. Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been one of the most underrated African players in Europe. He has been around the football circuit in Europe ‘quietly’ plying his trade and honing his goal-scoring skills and instincts. He is the son of another neglected African great. Pierre Aubameyang played for Gabon 80 times. Unlike his son he was a defender. He was the first Gabonese footballer to play in France, including for Toulouse and Nice. He is now a scout for AC Milan.

Pierre Aubameyang Snr

Pierre-Emerick came through AC Milanʼs youth structures, but was laned to various clubs in France, eventually signing for Saint-Étienne in 2011. Having established his credentials in France and when Gabon co-hosted the African Cup of Nations in 2012 he moved to Borussia Dortmund FC last season.

That transfer has changed not only his profile, but also the quality of his football, providing him the platform to showcase his immense striking prowess and nose for goals. This past year, particularly, he has matured into one of the deadliest strikers from Africa playing in the Bundesliga and in the European Champions League.

His speed and deadliness in front of goal have been phenomenal. Playing for one of Europe’s best teams along with other world class players has surely sharpened the edge to his game. He is attracting raving reviews, lots of attention, respect and accolades.

Coming from a small African country that does not win anything in the continent surely has reduced his direct impact in Africa, but that didnʼt stop Liberiaʼs George Weah and Maliʼs Frédéric Kanouté winning in 1995 and 2007, it would not surprise me if, purely on the strength of present performance, he is acknowledged in a year that few Africans have really been exceptional.

Surely, in terms of ability and his contribution to the ongoing success of his Borussia Dortmund – despite the wretched start to this seasonʼs Bundesliga that Jürgen kloppʼs team are enduring – week in week out, he stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the other nominees.

Another Surprise

My compatriot Ahmed Musa is another surprise inclusion. He is a regular in CSKA Moscowʼs team. Musa showed his talent in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011 – a tournament graced by several talents on their way to becoming important names in football. West Bromwich Albionʼs Saido Berahino made that trip too. Joel Campbell hasnʼt delivered for Arsenal, although he has impressed on loan and is a mainstay of Costa Ricaʼs national team also appeared in that tournament.

Real Madridʼs James Rodríguez and Isco, Atlético de Madridʼs Koke and Antoine Griezmann, Liverpoolʼs Philippe Coutino, Tottenham Hotspurʼs Erik Lamela, Benficaʼs Nelson Oliveira (just loaned to Swansea City for the rest of this season and Chelseaʼs Oscar and Mohamed Salah, among others. Musa held his own in this company even then and he has developed since then.

He is one of the fastest footballers in the world with the uncanny ability to outsprint defenders. His finishing and crosses could be inconsistent and that has often reduced his overall impact. His performances for Nigeria during the 2014 World Cup and during the AFCON 2015 qualifiers stood out as one of the more consistent in a field of erratic strikers in the Nigerian team. However, his chances of winning the 2014 African award are slim considering that the next two players in the list may be just ahead of him in terms of impact for their club and country.

The Lifetime Achievement Candidate

Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan could have won the African Best Player award already if he had not been playing his football in the same era as Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoʼo and Yaya Touré. One after the other, these three players have completely dominated the African football scene in the past decade.

Samuel Eto'o

It is clear that a player had to be exceptionally gifted to break their grip on the title. That’s the reason why even extra-ordinarily talented players like Nigeriaʼs Jay Jay Okocha and the Black Starsʼ Michael Essien did not win it.

Asamoah Gyan has resurfaced again in CAF’s list even as he has moved in the past three seasons to establish himself as one of the best players ever in Asian football history. But Asia is not Europe. Gyan held his own in England at Sunderland before forcing a move to the Middle-East. Playing in an obscure league for a completely unknown club called Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates does not help his cause. It may cost him the award again.

Nevertheless, some people think he played some of his best football during the 2014 World Cup, scoring two goals and becoming the African player with the highest number of goals in the history of the World Cup, one goal ahead of the legendary Roger Milla. Another factor in Gyanʼs favour – perhaps the most important this time – would be because selectors may already be developing Yaya Touré fatigue.

Dominant

Yaya Touré has been so dominant in the midfield where he plays for his Club and for his country that it will surprise no one should he get the award for the fourth consecutive time. Without question he is the most gifted African player of this generation – tall, powerful, elegant, graceful, skilful, deceptively quick, technically proficient and masterful on the ball. He is the only African player in FIFA’s list of the world’s best 20 players in 2014.

This season he has not played quite up to the level of the previous season but he is still dominating every midfield, dictating and controlling play, and delivering deadly ‘poison’ of goals whenever he finds himself in the periphery of the oppositionʼs goals. Also he has returned to form for Manchester City at just the right time for the selectors to notice.

CAF and its President Issa Hayatou may sentimentally want a new face to adorn the award and to break the monotony of another Yaya Touré victory, but on form and achievement he is the best of the candidates. He deserves to clinch the title of Africa’s best footballer again.

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