Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The 2013 Afcon - Celebrate Africa

Television remote wars can break up homes – ugly looks passed across sitting rooms, awkward silences ending in one unlucky soul sleeping on the couch. That’s life sometimes.

Every now and then, though, this tragic in-house skirmish is worth it… The Africa Cup of Nations is here – it’s time to witness a proper celebration of Africa.

As you read this the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) will have reached its business end where men have been separated from boys and the climax of this unique four-week festival is nigh.

So, what’s all the fuss about, you may ask.

Well, for one, this isn’t just a football tournament; instead the Nations Cup has become a symbol of pride for the continent, one inextricably tied with Africa’s road to emancipation. Steeped in tradition, the Nations Cup is about more than lifting a trophy, it’s a chance at immortality.

That this edition is in South Africa adds further romance, a renaissance moment of sorts, and a realisation how far the tournament and the continent have come since the first Afcon in 1957.
Humble beginnings
Africa Cup of Nations in 1957
When the Africa Cup of Nations was first mooted in June 1956 none of its founding members – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa – would have envisaged its growth.

Against a backdrop of oppressive colonialism, football was both an escape and source of pride and the Nations Cup would be a free Africa’s first monument.

Still, challenges were such that the first Nations Cup was no more than a three-team championship between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia after South Africa was disqualified because of its apartheid policies. Its roots, though, had been formed. Africa’s nations would henceforth compete for the “African Unity Cup”.

Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah recognised the power of football as a means to achieve social change and convince Ghanaians, and Africans, of what they could achieve for themselves.

The result was a golden age of success for Ghana’s Black Stars but also a period in which Nkrumah passionately advocated Pan-Africanism. In 1960, 17 African countries gained independence from European colonial powers. The number nearly doubled over the next three years and in 1963, May 25, 32 independent African states formed the Organization of African Union, the precursor to today’s African Union.

That’s the essence of the Nations Cup, its beauty. It transcends the game.

More often than not teams are playing for their people.

In 1996, South Africa’s victory united a country. At last year’s edition in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Libya’s team played for unity amidst political in-fighting at home while Zambia dedicated their tournament victory to their Chipolopolo predecessors killed in a plane crash in 1993.

Today, eight of the 16 nations competing at this year’s tournament are listed as having ongoing military conflict back home. When Mali’s Seydou Keita scored the winner in his side’s opening match against Niger he revealed a simple message: “Peace for Mali”.

This is a critical juncture in the history of the tournament. In some ways the Nations Cup has become unsure of its place. This is the first Afcon since 1965 held in an odd-year in an attempt to avoid a clash with the World Cup. Critics have lamented how often the championship is played, others its quality.

So, Afcon 2013 is significant.

It’s significant to a South African nation that’s recently suffered the blight of xenophobia and fallen away from its embrace of African football competition that once made it so formidable. It’s significant because it’s an opportunity to eliminate a worrying lethargy in the continent’s administrators that has, in recent years, deprived Africa the spectacle the Nations Cup should be.

It’s significant too for Lesotho; a wake-up call hopefully, because once again our country is being left out of the festivities, not because of a lack of talent, but a lack of fortitude.

The Competition

The Africa Cup of Nations has grown into a championship of 16 teams, divided into four groups of four each. The top two from each group progress to the quarterfinals with the knockouts continuing until a winner emerges in the final at Soccer City, Johannesburg on February 10.

Favourites again...
Didier Drogba leads the Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast
Thus far it has been difficult to pick a team to go all the way such is the wide-open nature of the tournament and African football in general in recent times. Nevertheless, Ivory Coast should be considered heavy favourites for the title. It’s a tag the Elephants hold for a fifth successive tournament and one they haven’t revelled in. It is one of the great mysteries how this golden generation has failed to win any silverware since its rise to prominence in 2006.

Ivory Coast have lost two finals (2006, 2012) and reached two semi-finals in that time, repeatedly falling short at the moment of truth.

Still, Ivory Coast are a formidable team. They are Africa’s top-ranked team and have not lost a match in regular playing time since a friendly in Poland in late 2010. There’s also a realisation this could be the last chance for many of the squad, notably captain Didier Drogba, to capture this Holy Grail.

Ghana were the darlings of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when they were nicknamed BaGhana-BaGhana, a play on Bafana Bafana after the hosts bombed early. They showed then they will enjoy South African conditions more than most.

Without star players Andre Ayew, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and John Mensah it may be easy to overlook Ghana’s threat, but that’s where the danger lies. Physically strong, tactically astute and technically gifted, the Black Stars are perhaps the perfect football hybrid.

Nigeria would seem a strange choice to be amongst the favourites, but their track record speaks for the fact they will be difficult to be beat. No other team at this tournament has reached the semi-finals of the Nations Cup more than the Super Eagles. Indeed Nigeria’s record of 13 last-four appearances is only bettered by record champions Egypt, with 14.

This Nigeria side is physical, a seemingly deliberate throwback by coach Stephen Keshi to the Super Eagles sides he played in, with players like Rashidi Yekini, in the mid-nineties. That was a period of success which included a 1994 Nations Cup win and a 1996 Olympic gold medal. Once again raw power, speed and breath-taking athleticism are Nigeria’s game. And, once again, it will be difficult to stop.

Dark horses

With Emmanuel Adebayor in tow, anything is possible for the Sparrows.  The lanky striker has a talismanic ability rarely found. As a footballer he has it all. His only problem is desire. Still, Adebayor’s past feats are remarkable. He inspired an unknown Togo to the 2006 World Cup, scoring 11 goals in the qualifiers, more than any other player in Africa. If he’s motivated Adebayor can carry this team as far as he wishes.

Mali, Cape Verde and Zambia, as defending champions, will be thereabouts as well. Each has unique intangibles; Mali an unyielding spirit, Cape Verde disciplined flair and Zambia the confidence of champions.
The Big Prize...
Zambia captain Chris Katongo kisses the
Nations Cup trophy
Regardless who emerges victorious, this is Africa’s time in the limelight. Since its inception the Nations Cup has been about extending the hand of friendship to neighbours cut off from one another by borders they had no say in creating. It’s always been about promoting a common African unity and maintaining a promise to keep ploughing forwards as a people.

So next time those remote wars spring up, stand for your ground. There’s always a story at the Afcon, and above all – it’s time to celebrate Africa.

28 January 2013

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