Is your heart racing at the prospect of the African Cup of Nations kicking off on Saturday? Thought not. My first experience of the African equivalent of the Euros was in 1992, in Senegal. The ‘Observer’ Magazine wanted a piece, alongside photos taken by my friend and colleague, the photographer, Alistair Berg. It was fantastic; we had a great time; the football was crap.
I’ll bet those sentiments have summed up the thoughts of many travellers; not just that particular year, but on just about every African Cup of Nations ever since.
In 1992, we were based in Gambia; that thorn of a mini-country, lodged by the Brits in the side of ‘French’ Senegal: the mad result of old, imperial, map making. You could travel from Gambia into Senegal by going north, south or east; to the west, only the old, slave-bearing sea.
Al Berg and I liked to turn up to matches nice and early of course; plenty of time for scribbling and snapping before kick off. We had what seemed to pass for ‘authorisation’, with amazing access to all areas. No one ever stopped us going anywhere in the stadium. We had a ball. I’ll bet it’s not like that these days.
It was soon clear that when the ref blew for kick-off, the fun (or most of it) was over, at least until after the game. But, in the two hours leading up to kick-off, the visual splendours and imagination that some of the fans paraded was stunning. And there was a thrilling ‘match’ played in the time before kick-off – by far the most exciting and moving – between the two groups of musicians/fans who were supporting opposite sides.
These opposing bands, with the exception of the local Senegalese, were often ‘paid-for’ supporters: real fans but fairly bourgeois in the African context. Their travel (often, of course, halfway across a continent by air) and subsistence costs were usually covered by a ‘Big Man’ sponsor from within their FA, or a national politician/businessman looking to score brownie points. But the music they made was fantastic; the drums rearranged your bones; hypnotically rhythmic, and sustained for hours. When Ghana played Congo in the quarter finals, the ‘battle-of-the-bands’ was something else; the highlight of the whole tournament.
Mind you, if Senegal wasn’t playing in the match, there was hardly anyone in the stadium. When the home team played in the Stade Leopold Senghor in the capital, Dakar, there were between 50 – 60,000 fans in attendance; any other matches and you were lucky to find a few thousand on the terraces at kick off. No atmosphere at all. It looked so bad that they started opening the gates at half time to let in passing strangers (and hundreds of street kids) for free. It did liven things up a little, but soon even the kids got bored too.
On the pitch it was poor fare. Even the Final, Cote D’Ivoire v Ghana, was a bore, saved only in my memory by the fact that I sat alone on a stool on the pitch sideline and watched a penalty shoot-out that involved every player on the pitch, and was finally settled 11-10 in favour of ‘Les Elephants’.
I’ve been to a few Nations Cups since; the most memorable in Burkina Faso, in 1998, when the hosts (one of the poorest countries on earth who had never played in the final stages of the competition before) made it through to the semis.
I have never seen a place and its people anywhere (even in Liverpool after the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’) so ecstatic and joyful, after they won their quarter final match. The capital city went completely crazy, living up to its name, Ouagadougou. The images of that night are tattooed on the inside of my head. It was wonderfully dangerous and totally unforgettable. We ended up carousing, ‘One Wagadoogoo….there’s only one Wagadoogoo’.
I watched the 2010 Nations Cup on TV and it was pretty dreadful. Jonathan Wilson’s well-informed blog this week asks, ‘Is African football making progress?’ (click here) and it’s clear that, with few exceptions, when it comes to the World Cup, African football hasn’t improved significantly in the two decades since Senegal, despite Pele’s prediction that an African nation would win the World Cup before the end of the (twentieth) century. It looks nowhere near any likelier now.
Who would have thought two decades ago (after Cameroon had battered England and lost in the quarters in 1990) that an Asian country would get closer to the Final than any African one? Even in the one World Cup played in Africa, with the host nation and five other African teams taking part, nobody really showed up, apart from Ghana.
So what’s going on? Despite the decades passing, and the host of high quality African players who have graced the European leagues over the past twenty years, why hasn’t Africa produced a riveting Cup of Nations or a significant impact at World Cup level?
Answers on a postcard please.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.