Heroes

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

AFCON 1980 Triumph

35 years ago today, I was one of sixteen young Nigerian football players that walked onto the turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos full of nerves, but exhilarated by the atmosphere and the expectations of my nation. Nigeria had never won the African Cup of Nations.

The tournament started in 1957. It was time for us to take our place at the summit of African football for the first time. A crowd of some 100,000 Nigerians packed in a 60,000 capacity stadium like sardines to witness our attempt to create history.

Making History

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90 minutes of football later, driven by the passion of a hundred million other Nigerians, the goal was achieved. The Green Eagles played beyond their capacities and soared high above the Desert Warriors. In doing so, we destroyed the invincibility of an Algerian team that was at its peak – an obviously more experienced and probably even better team than the Eagles.

Remember that just two years later only larceny of the most shameful kind could rob that Algerian team of World Cup glory. The eventual World Cup finalists West Germany and Austria contrived in the Disgrace of Gijón to fix a result that saw both progress to the second round at Algeriaʼs expense. It was one of the worst moments in World Cup history, but it showed how big a threat Algeria was and how good a team they really were.

On the night, Nigeria could not be stopped, having come through some really difficult early matches. We played our best match of the championship, scored the highest number of goals and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in our country’s history.

Duty
The President of Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, led the sea of Nigerians that physically watched the event live at the stadium. As young men, we were over the moon. We had worked very hard and prepared well under the guidance of professional sports managers and administrators. Nigeria had well-established sports institutions, a clear sports policy, a clear strategy and vision for sports development.

We saw ourselves as ambassadors and patriots serving our country willingly in answer to our nationʼs call to duty. Our victory in 1980 was the culmination of a process that started in 1976 when the national team went to Dire Dawa and against all odds returned with bronze medals for the first time in our history. That was the impetus needed to aim higher and we did. In that spirit, we went to Ghana for AFCON 1978 and reinforced our confidence.

Cometh the Hour!

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When 1980 came and the event was held in our country we believed we had to win and were ready. The preparations were hard but meticulous, driven by our single-mindedness to be part of history. The entire country was involved on March 22, 1980. It was a day none of us that played in that match will ever forget. We soared like eagles – super-eagles.

In the end, hard work: good luck, the people’s support, our government’s commitment, all paid off. We won. And we were deservedly rewarded well without any solicitation by us. Football in Nigeria had never been the same and would never be the same for us any more.

Celebrations
This day, 35 years after that victory, I can still play back in my mind almost every minute of the final match – the blaring trumpet of the late musician Zeal Onyia marshalling Nigerians to the great battle, the vociferous singing of 100,000 Nigerians at the stadium, and the rampaging supercharged Green Eagles with humble me scoring a brace and coming closest to winning the continent’s best player award that year.

It was a day when the elements had no choice but to side with the eagles, and to provide Nigerians with the cause to truly celebrate. 35 years after that victory, the heroes of 1980 are still remembered by most Nigerians. Six of them have passed on to the beyond – Muda Babatunde Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Martin Eyo and Tunde Bamidele.

The rest are alive and kicking, not by our strength, but by the Grace of God, grateful for the opportunity of life, and of that day, March 22, 1980 when our names were written in Gold in the archives of African football.

On behalf of all 22 of us, including Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Felix Owolabi, Shefiu Mohammed, John Orlando, Frank Nwachi, Christian Chukwu, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Henry Nwosu, Moses Effiong, Charles Bassey, Godwin Odiye, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Adokie Amiesimaka and me, I use this opportunity to say thank you once again to all Africans for their support and love, which since 1980 has occasionally still been showered lavishly on us.

Segun at Wembley

Another African Mentality (Part One)

Editorʼs Note

We republish this article now for a number of reasons. Despite only winning the African Cup of Nations once, Claude le Roy has contributed to the development of football in several African nations. He unleashed Samuel Etoʼo on the international stage for Cameroon. He blooded André Ayew for the Black Stars. He coached the Democratic Republic of Congo twice before surprising a few naysayers with the Republic of Congo at the recent African Cup of Nations.

It is often forgotten that a young Frenchman, Hervé Renard got the opportunity to learn from le Roy as his assistant in Ghana. Renard made the most of the opportunity. He went on to make African history, becoming the first coach to win the African Cup of Nations with two different countries, Zambia in 2012 and la Côte dʼIvoire in 2015. Renard credits le Roy for bringing him to Africa.

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Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 30th 2009)

An African European

Unlike many of the European coaches plying their trade in Africa Claude le Roy had extensive experience of Africa and African football. He was a student of Africa and immersed himself in the culture of the country. Le Roy loved Africa and had followed Ghana’s football carefully.

His predecessor Ratomir Dujković overplayed his hand and importance after Ghana became the only African country to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2006. Dujković thought himself a Ghanaian national hero, but Africans didnʼt – Ghanaians especially did not share his opinion of himself. The Ghanaian Football Association turned to le Roy.

My father fought for independence of Algeria and was close to Patrice Lumumba in Congo in the first war of independence there”, le Roy told us exclusively. “That means that I was lucky to be brought up in a family so rich in culture. I had writers and journalists around me since my youth”. It is important to le Roy that readers understand the influences that gave him his beliefs in life and also football.

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It is not because I have more culture than others”, he explains “It’s because I was born in a family who was completely open to the world and that gave me a big chance in my life. I think it is not by chance that I work in Africa: in Asia, all around the world, because I wanted to discover different cultures, to respect them, to know them”.

A Special Place

Africa will always have a special place in le Roy’s heart. “I love this continent and I love the people of this continent”, he said. “I come here since I was a kid and I was concerned by the different wars for independence in Africa – first in Algeria, then elsewhere. I have a lot of friends who came from Africa and that nurtured my interest. I was playing with them and I became more interested”.

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The love affair with the continent had begun. “It became more important when I was the head coach of the national team of Cameroon”, le Roy says. “The relationship with my players was fantastic and it came naturally after that”.

He doesnʼt like to compare the African teams that he has coached or their cultures. “There are so many African countries – it’s like Europe, you can’t compare a strange land, a German to a Scandinavian”, he said. “The same thing in Africa”.

And football is no different. “Cameroon – they are very strong in mentality as well”, he said. “You can call them the Germany of Africa. They always, always, always have strong willpower. In Ghana there is the skill of the West African people and Congo has the power of Central Africa in this part of Africa and in Senegal they are very tall. They have huge potential and physical strength and it depends also on the culture in some countries”.

The Pull of the Black Stars

So what attracted him to Ghana and the Black Stars? “In Ghana there are so many cultures”, he said. “There are so many questions, because we bring them so many new religions. They have religions – African religions in Ghana. We cannot change that. Many came. The Ketabi came, Arabs came, but the ways of the African culture is fantastic”.

So what about football? What was the lure of coaching the Black Stars? “It’s easier to be the national coach of Ghana than it is to be of a little country that doesn’t have a lot of professional leagues, because sometimes even the professional players don’t want to come for friendly games”, le Roy explained. “They have all sorts of pressure from their clubs, especially when playing for your national team because you can lose your place. Michael Essien is not afraid to come with Ghana, because he is important to Chelsea, when according to the club he should be there”.

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Le Roy likes to give youth a chance. As Cameroun coach in 1998 he took a chance on a young striker, ensuring that he at least gained some experience at the highest level. “Samuel Eto’o was at the World Cup in France in 1998”, said le Roy. “He was nineteen. I took him. It’s now exactly what we need for the African Cup of Nations, World Cup and for the future”.

Eto’o went on to become the most prolific goal-scorer in the history of the African Cup of Nations.

Le Roy continued his policy of giving youth a chance by giving a début to the teenage son of Ghanaian great Abédi (Pelé) Ayew.

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André Ayew and all the players – they are the leaders of the new generation”, said le Roy. “Stephen Appiah is the skipper on the field. He’s a tactician. He’s really another coach, but Michael’s a little bit shy but he was perfect in his role and it was very good for him to be the captain”.

Le Roy is impressed with his captain and emerging team. “I was surprised with his speaking to the players about technical quality”, le Roy said. “They are very important – all of them. I have not two or three star players. All the players of this team are playing properly, because they are intelligent players. They like to talk about tactical problems of the team. They are fantastic and have great artistry and I enjoy a lot with this team. I’m very proud of them”.

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.

Making History

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 8th 2015)

Coaches

Avram Grant would become only the third coach to win with the Black Stars and the first foreigner – Charles Kumi Gyamfi won it thrice and Fred Osam Duodu in 1978. Ghanaians hope that the 33 year wait is about to end, but a former ally stands in their way. Hervé Renard hopes to make history too.

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He failed to persuade national legend Didier Drogba to reverse his international retirement and he knows that the Golden generation of Ivorian football has ultimately failed to deliver. Three times the Elephants have reached the final of the African Cup of Nations. Every time it went the distance.

In 1992 la Côte dʼIvoire achieved their only success. Fourteen years later Hassan Shehata led the Pharaohs to the first of three triumphs. And in 2012 Renard was the tactician who broke Ivorian hearts leading Zambia to their only Cup of Nations triumph. On each occasion the final ended in 0-0 draw – hopefully the cycle will be broken tonight.

The Next Generation

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Renard stands on the brink of history, but is quick to acknowledge another. “He won the Cup of Nations with Cameroon”, Renard said of Claude le Roy. “He deserves total credit [for Renardʼs success with Zambia], because without him I wouldnʼt set one foot in Africa. He did everything for me. Itʼs even him who spoke with Mr Kalusha Bwalya [President of the Zambian FA] about me. I think Kalusha didnʼt know me very well. I think itʼs a good record. I think I came on the right place at the right moment”.

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Bwaylya gave Renard a chance twice. “… in 2008 I was reflecting on that when Zambia was at the Africa Cup I thought, what is the best requisite for a coach to work in Africa – of course Africaʼs always been in the export of players, but an importer of coaches, so I thought to myself, we needed a young coach to come and also who was ambitious, who was not going to be too comfortable in Africa to stay here 20 years”, Bwalya told us.

Bwalya had a plan and Renard was part of it. “I thought that it was important that they stay here three, four, five years and target the Africa Cup, target the World Cup and then they can move on, so when I got Hervé Renard after I assumed office in 2008 I brought him to start to prepare the team for 2010 – Hervé Renard”, Bwalya said. “In the three years he spent a lot of time in our country; he was very, very comfortable in our country”.

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Delayed Reaction Crystal Balls

Bwalya picked the right man even if it came true in Renardʼs return. “The work ethic, he was always working”, Bwalya said. “He was not afraid to lose a game which most of the people when they come away, they look more worried about their salary and everything done than the performance of the team”.

Renard repaid Bwalyaʼs trust. The African legend was the first to take a chance on Renard. He was vindicated in 2012 when the Chipolopolo fulfilled Bwalyaʼs dreams – he fell just short as a player in 1994.

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Meanwhile, two years ago, while covering the last edition in South Africa I asked Renard who would win the African Cup of Nations. “I think Ivory Coast and Ghana will reach the final”, he said. “They are the strongest teams”. Perhaps it was a delayed reaction answer that took two years to mature.

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Coming of Age

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 8th 2015)

Making History

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Seven years ago two young men were determined to make history at the African Cup of Nations. One was a young assistant coach believed in by one of the continentʼs finest European imports, Claude le Roy and the other was the son of Ghanaian – African legend, Abedi (Pelé) Ayew. Back then Hervé Renard was le Royʼs assistant as coach of the Black Stars and André Ayew was at the beginning of his international career.

Tonight one will achieve their dreams of glory in the African Cup of Nations at the expense of the other, ending a long wait for glory for either Ghana or la Côte dʼIvoire. Both Ayew and Renard have already one final appearance apiece. Renard has the edge, winning with the Chipolopolo in 2012 against his current side, whereas the younger Ayew lost in the 2010 to Egypt.

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Family Misery

There is unfinished business between the nations too. The only previous occasions the Elephants have met the Black Stars in the final was in 1992 in Senegal. The competitionʼs best player was Abedi. “It is my biggest regret in football”, Abedi said. “I couldnʼt help my team.”

He was suspended for the final. In his absence la Côte dʼIvoire won on penalties. Anthony Baffoe had the misfortune of missing the crucial penalty. Abedi is a Nations Cup winner – he came on as a substitute in the final against the hosts Libya, which ended 1-1. As a youngster he was in the squad that the legendary Ghanaian coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi took to Libya in 1982 – the last time that the Black Stars won the African Cup of Nations. They won 7-6 on penalties.

André played in the final of the 2010 edition in Angola. The Black Stars lost to Geddoʼs strike 5 minutes from the end – the last of Egyptʼs unprecedented three titles in a row. Although he finds comparisons to his father absurd, the younger Ayewʼs achievements are mounting. He was captain of Ghanaʼs Under-20 African Cup of Nations and World Cup winning teams in 2009.

Ayew was the BBCʼs African Player of the Year in 2011 and also Ghanaʼs. He made his international debut in 2007 under le Roy. “He is the future”, le Roy said effusively at the time. “André Ayew and all the players – they are the leaders of the new generation”. The 2008 edition of the African Cup of Nations came too soon. Just two years later they had matured, but fell at the last stage. Five years on Ayew is an integral part of the Black Starsʼ set-up. His younger brother Jordan is also part of Avram Grantʼs team.

In the Genes

I donʼt compare myself to him [my father] Dedé Ayew told us exclusively in 2007. “He has had his career and achieved everything. I am at the beginning of mine”. The legendary Abedi concurs. “We donʼt talk about football,” he told me at the 26th edition of the African Cup of Nations. “We talk about father and son things”.

It soon became apparent that he is very proud of his son. André briefly retired from international football in 2013 after a dispute with the Ghanaian FA. His father never got to play in the World Cup finals, but André has achieved that goal, playing in two editions, including 2010 when Ghana matched the achievement of Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002 in reaching the quarter-finals.

It’s very important to me [playing for Ghana]” the young Ayew said in 2007. “It’s something very big that happened to me to be selected for the Ghanaian national team, so I’m very proud of myself and proud to wear the jersey of Ghana”.

So what were his ambitions back then? “To become a better footballer and every day try to learn and become somebody good in life, in my career, of my family, win the African Cup of Nations, which is in Ghana and help to make the people happy”.

He might just achieve that tonight seven years late and in a foreign country. It would complete his African Cup of Nations medal collection – he already has bronze and silver. It would also make history for Avram Grant. The former Chelsea manager famously came second twice with that club, but should he achieve success tonight Grant will achieve legendary status in the land that Osagyefo (Dr Kwame Nkrumah) led to independence.

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Shameful

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 6th 2015)

Appalling

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The 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations descended into complete chaos this week. Both the quarter-final and semi-final involving the host Equatorial Guinea were shameful. Lacking skills and ability the hosts had little option but to try to intimidate the far more accomplished Tunisians and also the referee. There would be no repetition against the far more accomplished Black Stars.

Ghana outclassed the hosts. With less than ten minutes remaining and trailing 3-0 the 15,000 strong crowd in Malabo turned on Ghanaʼs supporters, hurling missiles at them. The Black Starsʼ fans took refuge by the pitch. Still the objects rained down on them. The match was suspended for half an hour. It resumed in farcical conditions, playing just the three minutes of added time. Ghana progressed imperiously to the final where they will play la Côte dʼIvoire – a repeat of the 1992 final in Senegal, which the Ivorians won on penalties.

Gamesmanship

Meanwhile, the headache of what to do about the hosts emerged. They had all but been given a bye into the semi-final through some atrocious refereeing by the Mauritian official Rajindraparsad Seechurn. The enraged Tunisians were punished by the Confederation of African Football, but the hosts were only given a $5000 for security breaches.

Equatorial Guinea made the most of what they had and sadly what they were given. The Mauritian official allowed himself to be influenced by the gamesmanship. Ranjindraparsad Seechurnʼs performance was so poor that he was sent home from the tournament and suffered further sanctions – a six month ban and being removed from the list of top African officials. CAF imposed a $50,000 fine on Tunisia, whose players, incensed by the refereeʼs performance had tried to get at him. They were prevented from chasing him down the tunnel by security officers. Nevertheless, the hosts were fined, but not for the shameful gamesmanship they employed.

Repeat Offenders

Well it had worked once. Why not try again. After all, the odds of the Nzalang Nationale (National Thunder) as the hosts are known achieving a famous win by outplaying Ghana were very long. There was a far better chance of pilfering a result using the same methods, but the Gabonese official Eric Otogo-Castane, had other ideas and so did the Black Stars.

The hosts had not been punished for their gamesmanship against the Carthage Eagles – far from it. They had been rewarded. The far better team was eliminated – robbed of their dreams by home-town refereeing at its worst. Seechurn paid the price – he deserved to.

Equatorial Guineaʼs coach Esteban Becker– a huge story in his own right as he took over just a couple of weeks before the tournament started after coaching their womenʼs team – blotted his copy book by blaming the Tunisians, claiming that they had been persistently fouling. Was he watching the same match?

Ghana left nothing to chance. They outclassed their hosts. The frustration proved too much for unruly supporters of the hosts. 36 people were injured; some required medical treatment The shameful violence continued long after the match ended outside the stadium. It was not the first time that Equatorial Guinea supporters had disgraced themselves.

The Ghanaian FA called on CAF to take strong action against the hosts. Equatorial Guinea was fined $100,000, but despite 14 people being hospitalised, CAF did not enforce a stadium ban – that was suspended. CAF defended the lenient punishment by claiming the ban had been suspended for the third place match against DR Congo tomorrow ʻto promote a spirit of fair play and brotherhood during the AFCON 2015ʼ.

Beggaring Belief

Astonishing. The shocking scenes in Malabo betrayed neither a spirit of fair play or brotherhood. The hosts disgraced the competition and should have been expelled. Instead they donʼt even have to play behind closed doors. CAF warned that any repetition will result in a stadium ban. As if it would matter then. What will Malabo host after the third place match? Qualifiers. Certainly nothing on a par with this match.

CAF denies showing favouritism to the hosts, but would any teamʼs supporters guilty of the violence rained down on Ghana on Thursday night have escaped playing behind closed doors at the very least? Meanwhile, Tunisia can only cast a bemused eye over these events. What grave offence will it require before Equatorial Guinea face punishment that fits the crime?

Meanwhile, CAF claimed to have acted decisively in the Seechurn case and they did, but they demanded either an apology from Tunisia over claims that they were involved in a conspiracy to ensure that the hosts progressed, or proof that this had happened. The deadline has passed.

The Tunisian FA refused to give an apology and has yet to provide proof either. They maintain that their protest related to the performance of the referee and asked for clarification. But while CAF punished Seechurn and Tunisia – the victims of the refereeʼs blundering performance – the hosts got a clear message. They benefited from the refusal of the officials to punish them once and even after very serious offences the sentence was far from deterrent. The decision to play the 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea has been seen to be a catastrophic error of judgement.

The Shame of AFCON 2015

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 6th 2015)

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Redemption

Welcome to the final feast of AFCON 2015.

The two teams left standing on the final day are probably the two best teams of the entire championship. The emergence of Ghana and la Côte d’Ivoire at the finish line is confirmation once again that West Africa remains the most dominant region in African football. It is the two teams that have put up the most consistent series of matches, improving technically and playing better with each successive match.

It is understandably so because the teams are made up entirely of players from various leagues in Europe who did not have enough time before the championship to become formidable teams and have been using the matches of the tournament to build their team and be better organised. Like a fine wine they have grown better with time.

A closer look at both teams, to hazard a guess where the pendulum of victory would swing, reveals a deep rooted rivalry that will be on full display when they line up on Sunday to decide Africa’s champions for the next two years.

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Head-Scratching

I was asked on television the other night to name who, in my opinion, has been the best player of AFCON 2015. I ended up scratching my head in an endless attempt to recall the one moment of magic throughout the championship up to the finals that could provide me with the answer. I came up blank. I have only faint and blurred images in my memory bank.

The entire championship as a whole may have been exciting – it was in its way – but it has lacked spark and quality. Even Yaya Touré, the player that had just been crowned Africa’s best has been but a shadow of himself.

Asamoah Gyan, the other great Ghanaian superstar, has been slowed slightly by age as well as illness and an injury that have minimized his contributions even though his goal against Algeria in the dying minutes of regulation time gave Ghana the essential victory that took the team from the brink of exiting the championship to the leadership of the group. That goal marks Ghana’s turning point in the championship.

The Final Curtain Call

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There is now the final act. One great performance in the final of AFCON 2015 can provide the perfect setting and opportunity to finish as the championship’s best player. So far, in this most average of African championships, no one truly deserves it. But which of these teams do I think would win the championship?

Ghana have won it four times. But the last time was in 1982, eons ago. During the 33 years of their ‘drought’ they have met Côte d’Ivoire three times during the championship, but only once in the final. Ghana lost that match via penalties. That was at Senegal ’92.

Côte d’Ivoire have not scored a single goal in regulation time in the three finals they got to. Even when they won the championship for the first and only time in 1992 they did so through penalties!They never seem to have the nerve to finish clinically and win in regulation time! So, where does all that leave us?

My head tells me Côte d’Ivoire will win through penalties again. My heart tells me the Black Stars would win in regulation time. So what does my unreliable crystal ball say? Give it to the Star that is Black. Whichever, way, enjoy the final feast, for it will be a far cry from the shame that is Equatorial Guinea.

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The Shame of Equatorial Guinea

The Confederation of African Football, CAF, should never have awarded the African Cup of Nations championship, AFCON 2015, to Equatorial Guinea. Why they did should actually be the subject of a future inquiry. Too many things were not correct with that decision. The events of the semi-final match against Ghana now provide ammunition for those who thought it was a big mistake by CAF. On that dark long night the chickens finally came home to roost!

The Equatorial Guineans met their Waterloo on the football field as the Black Stars tore them to shreds with a very easy and humiliating 3-0 trouncing that could easily have been more. Without the 12th player to help them which happened during the quarter-final match against Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea were left exposed by the superior, more mature and better organised display put up by the very experienced Ghanaians.

Equatorial Guinea actually started the match spiritedly, matching the Ghanaians tackle for tackle, ball for ball. But as the game wore it soon became apparent something was wrong. Lacking the skill, organisation and ability of the Ghanaians, the hosts had few options, but bluster.

The strategy they adopted was to try to physically intimidate the opposition to submission, but the gamesmanship was found wanting. By the end of the first half their game had deteriorated into a brawl. It was not surprising that at the end of that half they had not only conceded two goals but had also failed to create even a single goal-scoring opportunity.

Issa Hayatou 3

Disgraceful

The limitations of their team, compared to the football aristocrats of Ghana were all too apparent – and quickly. Angry spectators, almost 15,000-strong, infuriated that the referee was not succumbing to intimidation and the emotional blackmail of the home team, turned their anger on the game. They knew that they were being beaten by the far better team., so they tried to get the match abandoned through shameful thuggery, thinking that it would be replayed.

They threw missiles of all sorts onto the field of play, and the match had to be temporarily suspended for over 30 minutes. Unlike the peaceful atmosphere that had pervaded the entire championship from the start until the controversial quarter-final match that was gifted to Equatorial Guinea by an obviously bad or compromised Mauritian referee, Rajindraparsad Seechurn, the semi-final was appalling.

After achieving their best result through questionable behaviour, which cowed the referee into shameful under-performance once, Equatorial Guinea tried it again, but the Gabonese referee Eric Otogo-Castane was no Seechurn and the Black Stars reacted differently to the Carthage Eagles. The semi-final match was a very bad advertisement for African football with the entire world watching the ugly incidents.

I can imagine what the CAF President Issa Hayatou and his Executive Committee members must have gone through in that half hour of absolute shame. They must have rued the day they gave Equatorial Guinea the nod to host AFCON 2015.

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