Even when the event was shiny and new in 1957, there was disagreement. South Africa, one of the teams at the inaugural tournament with Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, refused to send a multi-racial side to the competition and was excluded. This meant that Ethiopia advanced to the final in Khartoum on 16 February where Egypt beat them 4-0 to claim the first of their seven trophies.
Almost 58 years later Cote d’Ivoire are the champions. Their penalty shoot-out victory over Ghana was the culmination of a month long 16 team extravaganza involving 24 matches in the group stages, four quarter finals, a couple of semis, a third place play off and, of course, the final.
As the top brass at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) survey their handiwork after the 30th tournament, they can be pleased; content that the Cup of Nations has grown up to become the third most prestigious tournament in world football, behind the world cup and the European championships and happy too that it has traction.
For example, the continent’s top footballer Yaya Touré was preparing to lead his Cote d’Ivoire team mates into the final while Manchester City, his title chasing club in England, was scraping a home draw with relegation threatened Hull City. One of the Senegalese wails was the absence of the West Ham United striker Diafra Sakho. He withdrew from the national squad with a back injury but emerged to play in the FA Cup for West Ham on 25 January while Senegal were preparing for a showdown with Algeria in the group stages on January 27. West Ham were subsequently fined 95,000 euros by FIFA for breaching rules over player eligibility.
The timing of the Cup of Nations – in January and February – slap bang in the thick of the European league season and cup season has been one of the thorny issues. The tournament is staged then because temperatures and climates would make it impossible to play at the close of the European campaigns. And ultimately, as the CAF executives would argue, what may be convenient for Europe is not the point of an African championship.
So at the age of 30 what is the point? The sociologist Duncan Watts coined the phrase ‘cumulative advantage’: essentially once something becomes popular, it will most likely become even more popular. The Cup of Nations has grown from the incipient four to 16. There is live match commentary by the leading international TV and radio stations. The major news agencies Reuters, AP, AFP are there. So too reporters from European and African newspapers. It’s a media jamboree. It has been covered before so it must be covered again otherwise a media outfit will be seen to be cutting back. And in the bluff world of journalism, that weakness dare not be shown.
The Cup of Nations has become an unruly beast but the perseverance is worthwhile. Punters love a spectacle. Fans love goals, sportsmen covet trophies and for the hacks – as the old saying goes: “you couldn’t make it up”. That’s simply because each Cup of Nations provides an insight into the ambition of the country’s leaders. From the laid back dynamism in Ghana to the parvenu pretentions of Angola, the confident savvy of South Africa and the bustling aspiration of the Gabonese.
Their neighbours Equatorial Guinea stepped in at the 11th hour to rescue the 30th edition. Morocco was all primed to stage it but asked for it to be postponed while the Ebola epidemic was dealt with. This request was a red rag to the bulls on the CAF executive. A Mexican stand-off ensued. Morocco didn’t back down. CAF stripped the north Africans of the tournament and sought another sanctuary to plant its 23 day football complex.
Ghana wanted to but couldn’t. Angola agonised awhile but said it hadn’t set the money aside. South Africa had come to CAF’s rescue at short notice for the 2013 competition when the idea of Libya had to be scrapped. And so Equatorial Guinea emerged.
Snag. Equatorial Guinea had been ejected from the qualifying campaign for fielding an ineligible player. No matter. The CAF executive reinstated them as host country and the show was on again. Inevitably the hitches and glitches would be one of the juicy narratives.
And indeed there were tales of water shortages and toilets not flushing for days. They were all there. But so too were heart warming anecdotes of expansive luxury. Guinea, for example, were housed at two of the swankiest hotels in Malabo. The swimming pool area at the Sofitel Cipopo sweeps down into a private bay in the sea. A 50-metre bridge connects the beach with a lush island.
Once they’d been plucked from that Shangri-la for their final Group D game in Mongomo, they returned to Malabo for their quarter-final against Ghana. Back in the capital they were lodged at the Sofitel President, an assuming 100 room number opposite the cathedral where the basic ‘Classic’ room costs 220,000 CFA (270 euros).
Guinea coach Michel Dussuyer said: “We didn’t have anything to complain about. The facilities were fine. Ok, the training pitch was a bit of journey but we knew everything wouldn’t be perfect. But we were lucky to be in Malabo. I know it was different for other teams. We were in Mongomo and it wasn’t extraordinary. We know that Equatorial Guinea has done its best to offer the best organisation.”
Dussuyer resigned after Guinea’s defeat. His was a CAN where he and a disbelieving world watched as lots were drawn to determine the runner-up from Group D. Guinea emerged from the draw at the Malabo Hilton at Mali’s expense. But the event highlighted the clash of cultures. A multi-billion dollar sport resorting to the threadbare solutions of two balls in a jar. It was pure 1957. CAF, which changed the rules covering dead heats just before the tournament, said in the wake of the debacle that it would think about how to sort out future group stage deadlocks. Cold comfort for Mali though.
Dussuyer, a former professional player in France, recalled: “The draw was a difficult day to go through. As a player or as part of the coaching staff, we’re competitive people and when you wait for a draw you can’t do anything. So just waiting and not doing anything? We’re not used to that. We want to be in the battle. We want to take part.”
The universal condemnation firing that story line subsided swiftly partly due to the dignity of the Malian delegation but mainly because of the hosts who took centre stage with two games of garishly compelling theatre.
First there was the quarter-final against Tunisia in Bata. Leading 1-0 through Ahmed Akaichi’s slick near post finish, the Tunisians pursued the win via the dark arts. Rolling around on the pitch after the slightest knock, they watched in glee as the clock ticked down towards their semi-final. Then in second half stoppage time, Ivan Bolado went down in the penalty area. Referee Seechurn Rajindrapasard pointed to the spot. Javier Balboa levelled and it went into extra-time where a sumptuous Balboa free kick gave the hosts a 2-1 win.
The Tunisians exploded. The officials needed police guards to leave the pitch, the head of the Tunisian federation, Wadie Jary, accused CAF of cheating, the Tunisian players smashed up the changing rooms and the people of Equatorial Guinea danced into the next day after reaching their first semi-final.
At the semi-final in Malabo against Ghana, the exuberance turned malevolent. Ghana fans in one enclosure were pelted with stones, broken mirrors, glass and urine filled plastic bottles during the first half while police looked on. That was when the game was still 0-0. But when Ghana scored twice within three minutes at the end of the half, more missiles were thrown at them and onto the pitch. The players needed to leave the field protected by the shields of the riot police.
The second half resumed with the same violence aimed at the Ghana fans who eventually broke through a barrier and took refuge on the running track behind a goal.
A helicopter swept over the field three times, once hovering barely 100 metres over the home fans. Riot police eventually fired tear gas and emptied three stands as the game was halted for 38 minutes.
Ghana won 3-0, the players and the fans were told not to celebrate for fear of further trouble. The biggest game in the lives of Equatorial Guinea’s footballers had been ruined by the supporters they’d been so desperately trying to honour.
CAF now had to slap the hand that had saved them. The Equatorial Guinea football federation was fined 88,000 euros for the poor behaviour of its fans. However to promote a spirit of fair play, CAF allowed the third place play-off to go ahead in front of spectators with the proviso that any more disturbances would lead to fans being banned from Equatorial Guinea’s next official match.
Barely 4,000 supporters turned up in the 15,000 seater stadium in Malabo for the defeat to Democratic Republic of Congo.
CAF munificence, though, was not in abundance with the Moroccans and the Tunisians. Morocco was banned from the 2017 and 2019 tournaments for pulling out as hosts. There were fines of 880,000 for doing so and an order to pay 8 million euros in compensation. Jary has been banned from all African football activities and the Tunisian federation has been told to produce proof of the alleged cheating or apologise by March 31. If they fail to do so they could be banned from the 2017 tournament.
Nearly 60 years ago, South Africa was rejected for its repellent social systems, nowadays nations are distanced because they say they are frightened of a deadly disease of are threatened with bans because of poor reactions to overtly incompetent officiating. The neutrals will have little sympathy with Tunisia who should have simply played football and scored the goals like the Ghanaians did in the semi-finals. The treatment of the Moroccans is a moot point that will be discussed for years.
Ghana midfielder André Ayew said on the eve of the final against Cote D’Ivoire: “I played in the 2010 final when we lost to Egypt. No one talks about the losers, you’re forgotten. Everybody remembers the winners.” Ayew lost his second final on 8 February and was a distraught figure. Cote d’Ivoire coach Hervé Renard was one of those who helped the 25-year-old to his feet.
But it’s not altogether true that nobody remembers the losers. The accountants certainly won’t. Nearly 890,000 euros in prize money will be heading into the coffers of the Ghana FA after the run of its national team to the final. Champions Cote d’Ivoire will receive 1.32 million euros.
Such sums were probably unimaginable when the three teams got together at the first competition in Khartoum. Sixteen countries have hosted or co-hosted the event since then. The venues may change but the controversies continue to rage...