Making The World Go Round

Editorʼs Note

The final of the Europa League will take place in Warsaw a couple of months from now. We covered Polandʼs bow at hosting a major football even and look forward to returning to see how football has helped to develop Polandʼs infrastructures on and off the pitch. Here we republish an article on how politics and football collided with football playing its part in fostering political change.

Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2012)

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Collision Course

A recurring theme in Euro 2012 was the desire to keep politics out of football. But why? Euro 2012 took place in two countries that know better than most that football and politics, especially liberation theory politics, most definitely do mix.

It was ironic to hear one of Poland’s greatest ever players Grzegorz Lato make that plea.

Lato knows how important the history and politics were back in his heyday as a player and also now. He remembers the 1982 World Cup in Spain well, having had a good tournament. Politics and football didn’t just mix then, they collided full on. Poland and Argentina bore testimony to that on and off the pitch.

The Mix

I don’t want to mix politics and sport”, Lato said. “I had several matches, especially in 1982 during the World Cup in Spain. We were in a group with the Russians and political aspects were very important during those times also”.

That’s not only an understatement, but somewhat economic with the truth. Those were very important times for Poland. Poles living abroad brandished their Solidarność (Solidarity) banners and placards. They filled the stadiums with their protest and defiance of the Polish junta led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski for Poland’s matches.

Damned Junta

Jaruzelski replaced Edward Gierek as Communist Party leader in December 1981 and imposed martial laws, clamping down on Solidarność, putting its leader Lech Walęsa under house arrest. The junta tried to destroy a popular movement and take advantage of football, but it had underestimated both the power of football and the desire of Polish people to be free of the shackles of an oppressive and deeply unpopular regime.

It also tried to censor the political protest made during the matches, thereby underestimating the power of football. Those demanding political change in Poland made far better use of the sport as a mechanism for political change than the then government of Poland.

Failed Junta

Ultimately the junta failed, but in 1982 a good Polish team inspired by the political events in the stands secured third place. Meanwhile, the junta reacted to the impromptu demonstrations by ensuring that Poland’s World Cup matches were broadcast with a delay that allowed it to cut out the Solidarność protests.

But it was too late. Poles already knew from the first match that politics had entered the world of football to great effect in support of political and human rights for them. Both players and Polish people could not claim to be unaware of what had happened.

The junta may have hoped to profit from the success of the team in Spain, but the Solidarność protests ensured that it could not steal the glory of a remarkable achievement by the players.

The collision had occurred and did so in a country that had only recently emerged from a debilitating dictatorship and had undergone an attempted coup just a year earlier.

In 1986 Jaruzelski was told by the then leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, that he would not intervene in Polish affairs, forcing the General to negotiate with Walęsa. Four years later Walęsa succeeded Jaruzelski as President of Poland.

Added Spice

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I don’t like politics to get into this”, Lato said as 1982 had added spice – a match against the old enemy, Russia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But would Lato or any of those complaining about politics and sport mixing object to the political protests of 1982 at the football in support of Solidarność and Walęsa?

I’m looking at the context of the history of Polish-Russian relations from another perspective. This [Euro 2012] is just a sporting competition. I have played against the Russians three times. During the Olympics we won 2-1. We lost 4-1 in Volgagrad and we had a 0-0 draw in Spain, so we are staying away from the politics. We are not interested in all those issues created by mass media. We are not interested in politics”.

A Force for Change

But why not? Politics can change the world. Football also can change the world for the better. Why shouldn’t they combine to do that, for example by opposing and even stopping wars as Didier Drogba did in la Côte d’Ivoire and Seydou Keita tearfully tried to do for his country Mali in this year’s African Cup of Nations? If football cannot and should not do that, then shame on it!

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So, coming from Lato this plea to keep politics out of football is strange. ‘Communism’ in Poland collapsed just eight years after the Solidarność matches in Spain. Lato was there in that different era and knows that politics and football collided for the greater good.

In the independent Poland that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union – a process that football played a part in – Lato became a Senator and later the President of Poland’s FA, the PZPN. Both were political positions. How can he credibly say that politics and football do not and should not mix?

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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.

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.

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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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Another African Mentality (Part Two) – Archive

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

Host And Win

The motto of the twenty-sixth African Cup of Nations was Host and Win’. Claude le Roy’s task was to turn the motto into reality. “You have to find a good balance in the African Cup of Nations”, he said. “There are players, about, 16, 17 or 18 coming through. The last few matches have been mostly young players. The problem was and is to prepare for the African Cup of Nations. That is the most important thing”.

The preparation was over. It was time to deliver on the pitch. Ghana had underachieved for more than a quarter of a century – the Black Stars last won the tournament in 1978. They had hosted and won under the great Fred Osam-Duodu. The omens were favourable, but le Roy didn’t underestimate the opposition or the task, although one important opponent – the African champions – had neatly and bizarrely slipped under his and Africa’s radar. Sadly for Hassan Shehata and Egypt it was for the last time.

I think Senegal: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon will be difficult opponents”, said le Roy. “You never know they might be too good and you may find a surprise from qualifiers like Guinea. We know that it will be difficult. We also know that we have to show a lot of discipline. I think there is a good chance to win as the host nation, but I’m sure that others will try hard too. I think it will be a fantastic African Cup of Nations in Ghana.”

The Axe Swings

Le Roy wasn’t wrong. Ghana cruised through their group to qualify as group winners, accompanied by Guinea. Pascal Feindounou’s moment of madness cost his team dear as he was still deservedly suspended for the match against la Côte d’Ivoire and the Ivorians took advantage to help themselves to a 5-0 goal-fest.

It would prove to be the zenith for Gérard Gili. The Frenchman who had coached the Ivorians’ Olympic team was thrust into the top job following the tragedy that struck previous incumbent Uli Stielike who had to resign to tend to his dying son. He was shown the door after his defence conceded four goals in consecutive matches to Egypt and Ghana and had to settle for fourth place in a tournament they had expected to win.

Meanwhile, le Roy did Nigeria a huge favour – Ghana drew the Super-Eagles in the quarter-final. Despite losing their captain John Mensah to a red card, the Black Stars always looked the better team. Berti Vogts’ tactics were conservative and not suited to the moment. Nigeria lost and the axe loomed large for Vogts, who resigned before the Nigerian Federation could fire him. Meanwhile Cameroun required extra time to scrape past Tunisia in an exciting match.

The Weight of Expectations

The Black Stars were favourites to reach the final. Previous Black Stars coach Otto Pfister was in charge of the Indomitable Lions and was given a gift by the Ghanaian media. They wrote off Cameroun before the match. Pfister had no problems motivating his team. It was a strange match. Ghana created several chances, but the bane of the World Cup campaign returned – utterly profligate finishing.

We dominated the game,” said defender Eric Addo. “We had a lot of suspended and injured players. It was very difficult. We managed to play good. We managed to create half chances. We just didn’t put them in the back of the net and Cameroun had one chance and scored. I don’t think we deserved to lose this game. Like I’ve said we dominated the game. We had chances. We were always crossing – I don’t how many crosses we put in in the whole game, but they had one chance. They scored – that’s football today.”.

His assessment is a little harsh on Cameroun. Pfister had a game plan to absorb the pressure and hit them on the counter-attack. It worked splendidly with Alain Nkong scoring the goal that broke Ghanaian hearts.

Le Roy had a different take. “I think the main reason is a lot of injuries make a huge difference”, he said. “We have five players of the first eleven who missed the semi-final of the African Cup of Nations. I think it’s too much”.

He wasn’t enamoured of the refereeing of Moroccan Aderahim el Arjoune either. “I don’t like to think about the referee, but you cannot say it was a great referee today”, le Roy said. “I saw the game actually and I respect that they won and I congratulate them for their win, but you see the game. I don’t think that they deserved to win, but they won. It’s happening in other countries, but I think it was even a little bit more than that – no home advantage for us. I cannot find that as an excuse. It wouldn’t be fair”.

The Black Stars had failed to host and win. Le Roy had to raise his team and deliver a farewell performance in Kumasi. Third place was now the best that was on offer. He knew that the media that had raised expectations to fever pitch would look no further than him for the cause of the Black Stars’ defeat. There were sure to be recriminations.