Sport: The Tactical Foul – The Decline of the Africa Cup of Nations
What a difference a year makes. Last February, football fans around the globe rejoiced after the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. A frenetic Zambia had won their first title, almost 20 years on from a fatal plane crash that wiped out virtually all of the much celebrated team from the 1993 competition. Conquerors of the Cote D’Ivoire and their Didier Drogba-led stars, the entire continent of Africa danced following a thrilling and nervy 18-kick penalty shootout in Libreville. For a moment, the lack of infrastructure and organisation the sport maintains around Africa didn’t seem to matter as belief and destiny took precedent over power and expectation.
Fast forward to 2013 and the outlook is so different. The final took place between Burkina Faso and Nigeria – the only two nations to appear to give a damn. Meanwhile Mali – arguably the only consistent nation – finished 3rd for the second year in a row. And where were the Team of Destiny from 2012? They didn’t even make it to the knockout stage (albeit they were in the same group as both eventual finalists).
Of course, when you have an international competition every year (one in which the players don’t get paid), it’s only normal to expect a certain level of apathy or boredom from those partaking. National pride can take a backseat to monotony. Playing for your country should be a privilege, yes, but when you play for it with such regularity, it must feel less special. I hate to beat on the same old drum, but the Africa Cup of Nations is in serious danger of becoming an exhibition competition, as opposed to a full-blooded everything-on-the-line tournament. It’s not really a surprise, considering that for decades past, the AFCON has been blighted by corruption, poor organisation, and eccentricity bordering on madness – all items bearing far more guilt for the competition’s fall from grace than bad tactics, play or technique on the dusty pitches.
AFCON 2010 was to be held in Angola, a decision made after a lot of alleged behind-the-scenes payoffs to officials. At the time, Angola was more unstable than it is now. In the middle of the group stages, the Togo team bus was shot at by local terrorists, killing the driver, the team’s assistant coach and the press officer. Togo withdrew from the tournament after the tragedy. The Confederation of African Football (the event’s organisers) made the subsequent decision to ban Togo from the next two tournaments and fine the team $50,000 for their unscheduled withdrawal or, more pertinently, for being shot at. The Court of Arbitration for Sport intervened on the behalf of common sense to overturn that particular ruling. In the same competition, 2013 winners Nigeria’s early exit saw their own government impose a ban on the team for the next two years for not trying as hard as they could have to win the cup. They came third.
Understandably, the Nigerians were hungry for glory this year and saw it through to the end, even overcoming the enjoyable underdogs from Ouagadougou. The bigger (and better) team won in the end, and little was made of it. It didn’t feel special to the world this time. The overall quality of football on display was very poor. The refereeing was worse and the stadiums were empty. This week, Efe Ambrose is both a continental champion with his national team – a feat precious few footballers can claim to have achieved – and also a player who had a dodgy game against the Italian champions in the Champions League quarter final 1st leg. When the world deems the latter more memorable than the former, it’s time to seriously reassess the validity of the African Cup of Nations and its impact on its participants, the fans, and world football.