By the final week of the tournament, the African Cup of Nations (CAN) seemed almost to have got over the terrorist attack on Togo. Whether it should have shrugged it off quite so readily is another matter, but the issue seemed in the past, and the temptation was to praise the resilience of Angola and African football, and to draw an analogy with the Manchester bombing of 1996, which barely impinged upon the Euros. Where the tournament had been let down, in fact, was by security concerns but by the quality of the football; the shootings in Cabinda seemed a world away.
Then along came the African Football Confederation (CAF) to awake fresh outrage, and to remind everybody that it is a dysfunctional body devoid of the basics of common sense and human decency. Somehow, in their illogical world, the people to blame were not the terrorists, not inadequate security or intelligence, but those who were themselves shot at. Banning Togo for the next two tournaments was a decision so staggeringly ill-conceived it was initially hard to formulate a response. It was as though somebody had crawled from the rubble of a tube station on 7 July 2005 and found an inspector fining them for having failed to touch out their Oyster card. How many players have to be shot before you’re allowed to withdraw from a tournament?
And the more you thought about it, the more you realised that everything is connected that the poor football and the disgraceful response to the shootings both stem from the same toxic source, that African football is being undermined by the very body that should be governing and promoting it.
When Cameroon reached the World Cup quarter-final in 1990, it was widely held that that was the breakthrough and that African teams would become regular challengers. Since then, though, more teams from the Asian Confederation have reached the last eight. For all the African players playing at the highest level in Europe, the underperformance of African national sides will continue until there is a radical change of leadership. Incompetence, idiocy and corruption poison African football at every level and while it is sanctioned by the governing body, nothing will change.
CAF struggle even with such basics as processing accreditation for journalists. I got mine in sufficient time to get a visa (itself a bureaucratic labyrinth) only by ringing the head office in Cairo every day – often four or five times – for a fortnight, until they finally sent me email confirmation. There was then a further delay because CAF had to forward the passport details of accredited journalists to COCAN (the local “organising” committee) before they could issue the invitation letter necessary to get a visa. In the end, I sent my details to the head of COCAN and persuaded him to forward the letter before he’d received the official list from CAF, and so made it to the opening game of the tournament.
Others were less fortunate. Ridiculously, Mark Gleeson, the king of African football journalism and a man who’s done more to promote African football than anyone else, hadn’t received his letter three days into the tournament, so flew to Luanda, begged, and was given a temporary visa. Not surprisingly, there were fewer than a third as many journalists in Angola than there had been in Ghana two years earlier. That matters because the fewer journalists there are the less coverage there is, and the less coverage there is, the less interest the tournament is to advertisers and sponsors, and the less interest it is to advertisers and sponsors, the less money CAF makes to reinvest in the development of the African game.
Some were put off by cost, some by security concerns, but a lot stayed away just because they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. Even within the tournament, the media management is shameful. At any other confederational championship, it is mandatory for the two teams to hold a press conference at the stadium the day before a game. That means that, at the very least, journalists have some injury news and the manager’s thoughts on preparations from which to compose a preview. Why is that important? Because a preview acts as an advert for television coverage: somebody who reads an article in his morning paper explaining the ins and outs of a game is far more likely to watch it on television that evening than somebody who hasn’t. The more people watch the television coverage, the better the advertising rates and the more can be charged for broadcast rights. In Angola, though, no Egyptian player spoke a word before either the semi-final or the final.
Even four years ago, it was possible to hang around the team hotels or training sessions and chat to players. The tournament was famous for the ease of access. Now, though, hotels and training grounds tend to be sealed. That is common enough in Europe, but in Europe there are regular press-conferences and post-match mixed zones where players and journalists can interact. In Angola, the mixed-zones were a farce, staffed by stewards and police with no notion of how they were supposed to work, and rendered all but useless by the chaos that ensued. These days at the CAN, the informal routes for speaking to players have been closed off, and the formal routes either don’t exist or don’t function properly. The result is poor media coverage, and that is something that is directly within CAF’s power to rectify.
That is a basic, and their failure to have established a basic structure is inexcusable. And if they can’t manage the basics, then of course crisis management is beyond them. Issa Hayatou, the president of CAF, is not a statesmanlike man, but when he visited Cabinda the day after the shootings, he was acting in a statesmanlike way. CAF could have stage an event at which he and the captains of the Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Burkina Faso – the four teams based in the city – expressed their determination that, after appropriate security considerations the tournament should carry on (whether Togo felt able to continue or not). There would have been a sense of CAF reacting with dignity and calm to the atrocity. Instead, CAF blamed Togo for taking the bus and, despite the presence of an Angolan army escort, said they hadn’t known where they were.
Typically, this detail of the bus dominated European coverage, much of which suggested Togo had been too poor to fly. This fitted the general patronising tone of much of the coverage of the tournament, which still prefers to focus on the colour and the quirks – the poverty, the painted fans, the muti… - rather than taking the Can seriously as a football competition and asking just why the goalkeeping and defending was so bad, and why time-wasting remains such a blight on the African game.
They weren’t too poor; on the contrary, Togo’s preparations were utterly sensible. They stayed at the Pont Noir resort in Congo-Brazzaville, a modern sporting complex with a new Astroturf pitch. At a little over 100 miles from Cabinda, it shares a similar climate – compare the Algerians, who trained in France and complained about the heat in Luanda as they lost their first game 3-0 to Malawi – and is also what must have seemed a convenient bus journey away. CAF can’t have it both ways; either they thought Cabinda was safe (and since the peace treaty between government and separatists in 2006 there had been no reported terrorist activity) and so what happened to Togo was a dreadful shock, or they thought it was dangerous and so shouldn’t have staged matches there.
All of which problems of organisation ultimately impact upon the football. There is a widespread belief that one of the six African qualified teams will make an impression on the World Cup. On the evidence of Angola, the only one that has a chance is Ghana, whose young side played with fluency and defensive nous in reaching the final Angola, and the possibility remains that none of them will make it out of the group phase.
South Africa weren’t even good enough to qualify for Angola. Quite apart from the ill-discipline of their performance against Egypt when they had three men sent off in losing 4-0, Algeria, who will face England in the group stage, just aren’t very good, and that they got by Egypt in a play-off is bewildering. Cameroon are too reliant on Samuel Eto’o who, given his principle attribute is his movement, needs good players around him to make the most of his talent. Ivory Coast lack imagination and looked unexpectedly shaky at the back. Nigeria, meanwhile, are mired in familiar internecine conflict.
Their football politics make the Schleswig-Holstein problem look like basic sudoku, but put simply, two organisations, the Nigerian Football Federation and the Presidential Task Force (set up by the government to supervise the World Cup campaign) are tussling over who should be coach. Control the coach, the theory goes, and you control selection; control selection and you can enhance the value of players. Government interference, of course, is outlawed by Fifa, but it could be that members of the PTF consider a suspension served immediately after the World Cup is considered a price worth paying. CAF could act, but it won’t.
And so, lacking leadership, African football continues to fail to deliver on its potential, continues to be a disreputable netherworld in which, it seems, the only crime worth punishing is that of being shot.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of 'Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics: A History of Football Tactics'