Some South Africans may give the biennial Africa Cup of Nations tournament a cursory glance, perhaps because of Bafana Bafana’s failure to qualify for the event that gets underway in Gabon this weekend. But most of the continent will be glued to the action coming out of the West African state.
Naturally, reports coming out of Gabon, which has just experienced unprecedented violence precipitated by disputed presidential elections, are disconcerting.
Workers were said to be putting in double shifts to complete upgrades to the airport in Oyem, where Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Togo and Morocco will be based, and journalists were frantically trying to secure flights as the prospect of a 400km drive from Libreville to Oyem loomed large.
Cameroon, the country that gave the world the hip-wriggling, gap-toothed Roger Milla, was in the news as eight senior players withdrew from national duty, citing all sorts of bizarre excuses.
Had it not been for their abundance of talent, Cameroon would be going to Afcon on a wing and a prayer following the withdrawal of high-profile players including Joel Matip (Liverpool) and Allan Nyom (West Bromwich Albion).
Zimbabwe, back among Africa’s sporting elite since 2008, snubbed a gala dinner hosted in their honour until their federation pledged to abide by an agreement that entitled each player to $5 000 in appearance fees per match.
Nothing much about Afcon has changed since it began in 1957 following a successful meeting between Egypt, South Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia in Lisbon the previous year.
But there was drama after South Africa’s representative, Fred Fell, asked to bring either an all-black or an all-white team to the tournament, but not a mixed squad, as that would have contravened the Nationalist government’s apartheid policy.
His proposal was rejected, South Africa were expelled and Ethiopia qualified for the final by default. Egypt and Sudan contested the semifinal and the Pharaohs went on to defeat both teams to become the first holders of the trophy.
Afcon has since grown from a four-nation event into one contested by 16 nations, and Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou is adamant that it should remain so.
In 1996 Nigeria refused to defend their trophy in South Africa following a political spat. General Sani Abacha barred the team from competing after then president Nelson Mandela had lambasted him for the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
In 2017 it is not Nigeria’s refusal to travel but rather their inability to qualify for the second consecutive time that is keeping them out of the continental showpiece. Zambia also failed to qualify.
The tournament marks the first time that Guinea-Bissau will participate in Afcon’s 60-year history and also sees Uganda’s return after a 39-year absence.
Afcon has always been a cauldron of drama, sometimes spilling off the pitch.
Those who have followed the African game will recall that the 1986 finals staged in Egypt, which is the headquarters of CAF, took place in the middle of a failed coup d’état when some upstart army officer from Alexandria tried to take over the government.
Veteran African journalist Emmanuel Maradas recalls: “Security was tight and arrangements for the tournament to proceed were put in place. The tournament went ahead as scheduled and there was security at every match.
“The Egyptian team was under pressure to win. Their first game was against Senegal and every fan demanded an Egyptian victory and they were banging on their drums and singing in the stands.
“Senegal scored, 1-0. Sulky, oppressive silence enveloped the stadium, perhaps even the entire country. The fans started throwing objects towards state president Hosni Mubarak. They were blaming him for the defeat!”
Egypt recovered from this setback and went on to qualify for the final, but faced losing talismanic striker Taher Abou Zeid to suspension.
But after some choice words and political wrangling, the referee did an about-turn, apologising for issuing the offensive card. CAF subsequently overturned Zeid’s suspension.
And the drama didn’t stop there. With the final against Cameroon heading to penalties, a Cameroonian minister ran on to the pitch and allegedly told his players: “Miss the penalties. If we win, the stadium will go wild. It’s not worth our lives. Miss them!”
“There was this politician telling stars like Roger Milla, Emmanuel Kundé, Stephen Tataw, Emile Mbouh, Cyril Makanaky, Kana Biyik to miss their penalty kicks. And I’ve never seen such lazy penalties, Kundé missed — he never missed a penalty in his career before! Egypt won 5-4!” wrote Maradas.
But refereeing has improved tremendously over the years and although there are a few glitches now and then, as when one man in black awarded Burkina Faso two highly controversial penalties against South Africa, the handling of Afcon matches has been generally fair.
This year, Group A is headlined by hosts Gabon, who boast one of the deadliest marksmen in the game — Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. They open their account against newcomers Guinea-Bissau in a group that also has Burkina Faso and a depleted Cameroon.
If wishes were horses, even beggars would ride. But one is allowed to dream and although they seem to have been thrown to the wolves, Zimbabwe, buoyed by a 1-1 draw against Cameroon in Yaoundé on Tuesday, are walking on air.
It might seem like a death wish when one considers that they have been paired in Group B with Tunisia, Algeria and a Senegalese squad teeming with superstars such as Sadio Mané of Liverpool, yet Zimbabwe’s Warriors seem unfazed.
The personnel at defending champions Côte d’Ivoire has changed drastically since they won the title against Ghana two years ago and both Gervinho and Yaya Toure are missing because of injury and retirement, but they should still prove too strong for Togo, Morocco and the DRC in Group C.
Ghana are still smarting from their failure to defeat Côte d’Ivoire in 2015, failing to hold their nerve and eventually losing in a shootout to the Ivorian Elephants — but nevertheless feel they have enough ammunition to gun down Egypt, Uganda and Mali in Group D.