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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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.