Nations Cup Postcard from Gabon: A mix of many issues

January 21, 2017 Articles Leave a comment

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As everyone that has a basis knowledge of football understands, the quality of a playing pitch has a direct relationship to the standard of games played on it. That truism is no less relevant at the Africa Cup of Nations.

And yet, from one tournament to another, the quality of pitches continue to come up short. They are often rough and uneven, which is a nightmare for the players that are expected to perform on them.

German club Schalke, for instance, will certainly not be pleased with the state of their defender, Ghana’s Baba Rahman, who twisted his knee, twice, in their opening group game against Uganda, in Port Gentil.

“Our football is not really improving,” says Joseph-Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper, a two-time winner of the Africa Cup of Nations, in 1984 and 1988.

“More money is coming into the game, certainly. But in terms of the organisation of the tournament, we are not striving to be excellent. Don’t call some names [of top players] to claim that African football is improving. It’s not true. There were good African players in Europe before 1960, so our problem has never been that we lacked players.”

“If the game is not attractive, because of the pitch, it means something serious, because the pitch is like the house [of football]… Getting pitches in good shape is about thinking properly and about having the money [to prepare them]. CAF really needs to think about it.”

The former Marseille and Bordeaux goalkeeper is blunt about what is responsible for the less than satisfactory manner in which the Africa Cup of Nations is organised.

“Confederation of African Football (CAF) officials always like to be told that “Oh, you have tried your best [to organise the tournament, despite all odds]. But it is not about doing your best. It is about being the best,” he says, very passionately.

And talking about being the best, Gabon’s chances of advancing to the quarterfinals, let alone winning the trophy, are extremely remote.

In terms of the organisation of the tournament, we are not striving to be excellent – Joseph-Antoine Bell

With rather tepid draws by the host nation, in the opening game against Guinea-Bissau and their subsequent encounter against Burkina Faso, everything now hangs on a victory in their final group game against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, who cannot afford to lose either.

The preparation of ‘Les Panthers,’ Gabon’s team, for the tournament has been, to put it mildly, shambolic.

Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho, who led his country at the 2002 World Cup finals, was put in charge of the central Africans with just 43 days to the start of the tournament. He had been in the coaching wilderness for the last four years, after being sacked as coach of the Chinese national team in 2013.

That Camacho has been thrown into the deep end, with no prior coaching experience in African football, is a particularly odd decision from FEGAFOOT, the Gabonese Federation.

“Our preparation for the tournament were disturbed by the political situation in the country, so it was certainly different from the circumstances, under which we prepared and hosted the tournament five years ago. It affected our results in the opening games of the tournament,” admits Gabon goalkeeper, Didier Ovono.

But Camacho, obviously pleased to be back in the game and earning a healthy salary, under his two-year contract, does not seem fazed by the task at hand.

“Football is a game of eleven men against eleven and we just have to prepare properly, for our remaining games, we shall see where we go.”

With a significant section of the Gabonese population less than enthused with the staging of the Africa Cup of Nations, arguing that the reported tournament budget of $700m should have been spent on the construction and maintenance of schools, roads and hospitals, many have voted with their feet, with their conspicuous absence from Gabon’s two opening matches.

The opening game against Guinea-Bissau did not have a full house. And attendance was much worse, in their second game against Burkina-Faso.

“We love football but staging the Africa Cup of Nations, after we had the previous one only five years ago, is certainly not what we are interested in now,” said a hotel worker at the Park Inn Radisson, which is the official CAF HQ for the tournament.

“Ordinary people in Gabon are facing very difficult economic times and are struggling to survive. Our government should concentrate on that.”

The elimination of the Panthers from the tournament would certainly not be in the interest of the government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba. And it will certainly ensure that subsequent matches will be played in near-empty stadia, as has been the case, so far.

While the Gabonese people have been less than enthusiastic in their support for the Panthers, the support for the Djurtus (the Wild Dogs), back home in Guinea-Bissau, has been nothing less than fanatic.

Tens of thousands, if not hundreds, lined the streets in Bissau, the country’s capital, as the Nations Cup debutants departed for the tournament. Massive crowds gathered to watch the opening game against the hosts, on an open-air cinema screen, when they forced them to a draw.

A subsequent goal by Piqueti, in their brave 1-2 loss to Cameroon, a virtuoso performance, has been the best of the tournament, by many miles.

“The passion with which our people have supported us has been incredible,” attacker Leocisio Julio Sami, an attacker with Akhisar in Turkey, tells KweseSport.

“We were made to understand that during our opening game against Gabon, about four people died in the crowd that were watching us. We are here to represent our people, as best as we can.”

Guinea Bissau is one of just three teams at the tournament headed by African coaches, with European coaches in charge of the rest.

DR Congo – managed by Florent Ibenge and Senegal, coached by Aliou Cisse –a member of their memorable 2002 World Cup team and a former English Premiership player, with Birmingham City – are the other two.

In the last 37 years of the Cup of Nations, only six African coaches have lifted the title – Ghana’s Fred Osam Duodu (1982), Algeria’s Abdelhamid Kermali (1990), South Africa’s Clive Barker (1996), Egyptians Mahmoud El Gohary (1998), Hassan Shehata, the most successful Nations Cup coach ever, with three consecutive wins in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and, finally, the late Stephen Keshi, who won the trophy for his native Nigeria in 2013.

Shehata is furious that European coaches, some with no pedigree or understanding of the African game, are given preference over his colleagues.

“There isn’t that much respect from FA officials for African coaches,” he told me in Cairo.

“I also asked Mr Hayatou (the president of CAF) why Africa is not doing enough to raise the technical level of African coaches and give them the know-how needed to take on high-level positions, even in Europe.”

It is a question that goes to the root of the continent’s long-term football development.

The sustainable, long-term future of African football can only be secure in the hands of competent local coaches, with world-class know-how but an understanding of local conditions and sensibilities, in a way that no European coach would ever grasp.

And that is why I hope one of the three African coaches at this tournament emerges victorious on February 5th.

Is that a tall order? As the French say, “Nous allons le voir.” (We shall see.)

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