All eyes on Africa as Cup of Nations begins
The 30th anniversary of the Africa-wide football tournament kicked off on Saturday under a cloud of controversy. But will it bring good publicity to African football – and to Africa itself?
In front of a sell-out crowd of 35,000 fans on Saturday, one of the world’s greatest football tournaments got underway — just about. It was a tournament that almost didn’t happen.
The small central African nation of Equatorial Guinea is this year hosting the African Cup of Nations; a football tournament comprising 16 of the continent’s best teams. The curtain-raiser pitted the hosts against Congo in a thrilling game which ended in a 1-1 draw.
But the 30th anniversary of the biannual event, which is older than the European Championships, has been plagued by uncertainty. When original hosts Morocco pulled out in November because of the Ebola disease, officials were thrown into disarray.
To the rescue came oil-rich Equatorial Guinea – a controversial option given that the country is riddled with 'corruption, poverty and repression’, according to Human Rights Watch. With under two months to prepare, hotel facilities and stadia have been criticised and tickets have been slow to sell.
Yet the tournament promises to be a thrilling one. It was thrown wide open after defending champions Nigeria failed to qualify, as did continental kings Egypt, who have won the tournament seven times. Teams to watch include Algeria, the best African side at last year’s World Cup, and the impressive-looking Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast will be without the incomparable Didier Drogba, yet new Manchester City signing Wilfried Bony — the most expensive African player in history — is expected to shine, along with Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo.
The Africa Cup of Nations has long been a thorn in the side of Premier League managers, who lose talent at a crucial point in the season. But for many of the players, the chance to return to their home turf is irresistible. ‘When you have the opportunity to make African people happy you have to take it,’ remarked Kolo Toure.
Your country needs you
With terrorism and disease dominating news coverage of Africa, this Cup is an opportunity to shine a light on something more positive, some say. It has already proved to be a tremendous story of emerging talent, self-assertion and the desire to go on with the show against all odds. With African players rushing to put their country before their club, the tournament encapsulates the true meaning of football.
But African football still struggles, others point out. Most African players would still rather play for European teams than African ones, and they are awarded far less global recognition than their counterparts. Only one African player has won the Ballon d’Or, and just five African teams are allowed to qualify for the World Cup. African football still has a long way to go.
- Should players put their countries before their clubs?
- Do we often wrongly associate Africa with poverty, war and disease?
- In groups, think of as many occasions in the past few months when Africa has been in the news. Has it been for positive, or negative reasons?
- Pretend you are a reporter in Equatorial Guinea witnessing one of the forthcoming matches. Describe the match and the atmosphere.
Some People Say...
“Africa is one of the continents which suffers every single minute.”Kolo Toure
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t care about football.
- You don’t need to know the offside rule or what a rabona is to find the competition thrilling. Whether it be watching the Bundesliga’s fastest player, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, tear down the pitch for Gabon, or finding out more about the murky past of Equatorial Guinea's president, this year's Cup has enough intrigue to keep everyone happy. More importantly, it challenges us to think about Africa’s image and reputation in the world more generally.
- So Ebola won’t affect the game?
- All officials and fans will have to undergo screening for the disease. But officials were not prepared to postpone the tournament, as Morocco had initially intended, arguing that not to stage the event on time would be a ‘mortal blow’ to the African game.
- Equatorial Guinea
- Equatorial Guinea, a country of just 780,000 inhabitants, is ranked 144th in the UN’s Human Development Index. President Teodoro Obiang seized power in a bloody coup in 1979 and is frequently accused of corruption and embezzlement by opposition parties and other countries.
- Obiang bought 40,000 tickets for the games to give away to the country’s poor. He has also cut two hours off the working day for civil servants to encourage them to attend matches.
- Wilfried Bony
- The Ivorian striker has just joined Manchester City for £28m. He will be under pressure to perform, after Didier Drogba retired from international football last year.
- Yaya Toure
- Toure did not own a pair of football boots until he was ten years old.
- African players
- West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyaté remarked recently: ‘Above all there is my country and I put Senegal before West Ham.’
- Global recognition
- Yaya Toure provoked a storm of controversy when he commented last year that he didn’t think African players received enough international recognition.