It’s time to take African football seriously

The Africa Cup of Nations has provided plenty of goals, skill, excitement... a far cry from the stale, over-hyped tournaments we Europeans are used to.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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A couple of weeks ago I was in a pub that was showing two football matches at the same time: Leicester v Palace on one screen and Ghana v Morocco on the other. I was there to watch Palace with a few mates but it was a shockingly abysmal game. Muddy pitch, long ball football, and hardly a goal attempt of which to speak until a fluke rebound off Barry Hayles’ shinpad settled the match. We ended up debating why anyone in their right minds would actually pay to watch this sort of rubbish.

Invariably, during the game, my attention kept being drawn to the Africa Cup of Nations action on the other TV screen. By contrast it was a feast of athleticism, skill, attacking football and goalmouth action. Obviously, you’d expect international football to be a cut above the standard of the Coca-Cola Championship. But the Ghana v Morocco game wasn’t a one off. The 2008 Africa Cup of Nations has been an exciting and enjoyable goalfest – 92 goals in 30 matches (an average of 3.07 goals per game compared to 2.28 goals per game in 2006). It beats most caution-ridden international tournaments I’ve seen in recent years.

But, despite the great football, the tournament still doesn’t get the coverage or recognition it deserves in Britain. Take Sunday’s quarter-final between Ghana and Nigeria. It was, quite simply, one of the most thrilling games of international football I’ve seen in a long time. Ghana’s 2-1 victory, achieved despite playing most of the second half with 10 men, was nothing short of heroic. The explosion of colour and noise in the Ohene Djan stadium in Accra when Junior Agogo scored the winning goal gave me goose-pimples – and I was a neutral observer!

Yet, the BBC didn’t show the game on a terrestrial channel. It wasn’t even aired on the digital channel BBC3, but hidden away in the interactive backwaters of BBCi, which meant it wasn’t advertised in the TV guides. And how was the match reported in the British press the next day? ‘Seven Barclays Premier League players will return to their clubs today after Nigeria were knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations by Ghana yesterday,’ announced The Times (London). There were admittedly a couple of grudging sentences about who scored the goals but the story was essentially about the return of Nigerian players to English clubs not the quarter-final drama itself.

This insular view of the Africa Cup of Nations is, of course, nothing new. In the build-up to the tournament, the debate in Britain was not about which team was likely to lift the trophy but why the Confederation of African Football (CAF) insisted on holding a tournament slap bang in the middle of ‘our’ domestic league season. In the past, when there were fewer African players in England, the timing of the tournament wasn’t such an issue but this year around 40 English-based players went to Ghana. So, rather than explore whether the traditional African footballing powers of Cameroon and Nigeria are in decline or why South Africa’s Bafana Bafana continue to disappoint, the British media were more interested in Arsene Wenger moaning about the loss of key Afro-Gooners. ‘You don’t want to lose a championship because the players have to go in that period,’ said the Arsenal manager. ‘Usually the players come back very tired and you lose them not just for that period but much longer.’

The predominantly sniffy and patronising tone of our media coverage isn’t confined to complaints from Premiership managers about the timing of the event. You can guarantee, for example, that the tournament will also be blighted by stories about the use of witchcraft or juju to influence matches. Togolese officials, for example, claimed that witchcraft was to blame for the 4-1 defeat to Benin, which resulted in their team’s failure to qualify for this year’s finals. And if it’s not African superstitions then there are bound to be stories about the ‘trafficking’ of young players, pay disputes, or the shambolic organisation of the tournament. In other words, the African Cup of Nations is about anything but the football as far as we in Europe are concerned.

I think it’s about time we took the Africa Cup of Nations seriously. Yes, the organisation isn’t as slick as the World Cup or the European Championships but compared to the overblown hype and corporate blandness of the ‘big’ tournaments, the Africa Cup of Nations is a proper, old-fashioned, exciting football tournament. Admittedly, when Pelé predicted that an African country would win the World Cup by the end of the last century he was talking rubbish. But African football is maturing fast. I’ve followed the last few Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and this year’s is by far the best I can remember. This year, the defensive, European-style football, which dominated the last few tournaments, has given way to a bolder, more attacking style of play. There are still some weak teams and a fair few dodgy goalkeepers but the top African sides are professional, generally well-drilled (with occasional exceptions such as Cameroon defender André Bikey’s bizarre red card for shoving a member of the medical team to the ground) and would give most European teams a run for their money. Arguably, the Cup of Nations is a much tougher competition to win than its South American equivalent, the Copa America, now that Brazil and Argentina field second-string teams.

CAF’s argument against staging the tournament in June and July is that it coincides with the rainy season in the tropical African countries. The desire to avoid a scheduling clash with the Copa America, which means a potential loss of broadcasting revenue, is probably another factor. Ideally, the football calendar should be harmonised, but if a compromise can’t be found why should the Africa Cup of Nations have to give way? Why don’t we re-arrange our own domestic season to accommodate the Cup of Nations? Start the domestic league season earlier and have a winter break. It’s as simple as that. That way English teams don’t lose key players and, more importantly, English fans get a break from crap football for a few weeks.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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