Raj Bains explains why it’s time to stop deriding or ignoring the Africa Cup of Nations…
A lot of people have been falling out of love with football this week. In the absence of top tier league matches, the international break has been sadly overshadowed by the hateful trifecta of Ched Evans, Dave Whelan and Malky Mackay, who have all done their level best to embody all of what is wrong with society in the most unwelcome trio since Take That announced Jason Orange had left. That said, we football fans are understandably in need of a reminder as to why exactly we love this game as much as we do. Look away now Whelan and Mackay, because I’m about to say some very complimentary things about the upcoming Coupe d’Afrique des Nations – for shame!
In truth, it’s incredibly easy to knock CAN if one were that way inclined. While most flirt with grossly patronising an entire continent when they talk of the quality of the football played, the CAN is regularly one of the finest footballing spectacles of the season every time it roles around. Lazily rehashed stereotypes are usually commonplace in discussions regarding Africa’s show-piece tournament, so you’ll invariably be told about how poor the goalkeeping will be, and how the lack of skill will be offset by lots of incredible athletes. While that’s all just a slight sidestep away from accusing black players of being unable to perform in the cold, it’s also entirely false.
Those of us who actually look forward to the CAN are aware of just how much fun the tournament can be. The ability to become a genuine neutral for a month can lift the usual burden of hope and expectation. The tournament rarely conforms to the narratives we’ve become used to in international football, and each and every country that qualifies does do in the belief that they can leave victorious. There is a mutual passion shared between the players and the fans, both understanding that this tournament is their best chance of obtaining meaningful silverware.
Despite what Pelé may have once said and the best efforts of Ghana in 2010, it’s highly unlikely that an African side will win the World Cup any time soon. However, much like the European Championship’s – before their needless expansion – the CAN is a highly competitive mix of sides all with the ability to beat one another. The previous champions, Nigeria, haven’t even qualified for the tournament this time around. The recent Côte d’Ivoire sides made up of more household names than those arrested in Operation Yewtree have spectacularly choked in the latter stages of the tournament year after year, despite being overwhelming favourites.
For many of the players involved, participating in the tournament may well be the pinnacle of their careers, which is no mean feat. Satisfyingly, it is often the sides with the best team ethos and passion to succeed that go further than the sides relying on individual brilliance and inflated egos. While that does sound a little like the loose plot of a straight-to-video Disney film, it remains undeniably joyful. The will to win is unparalleled, and that level of desire across the board creates a tournament with as much on-field drama as a regular league season would, just handily condensed in to a month.
Now, it would be wrong of me to neglect pointing out some of the institutional and political problems with the CAN, which are more suited to be fixed in a boardroom, rather than on a field. Ticket prices are often much too high, pricing out fans of many countries off the bat. With the tournament having moved from Morocco at the eleventh hour due to fears over Ebola, the announcement of a new host nation, Equatorial Guinea, has been met with a high level of scrutiny. On a footballing level, the fact they’d already been disqualified from the tournament is but a small concern compared to the issues raised about the countries recent horrific human rights record, which raises many questions about their eligibility to host such a prestiges event.
This isn’t the first time that the CAN has crossed paths with off-field incident, either. Back in 2010, the coach of the Togolese national side was barbarically ambushed, killing three as a result of the attack. That said, it is worth reminding ourselves of the current climate surrounding all international football. The World Cup is currently under a worldwide level of scrutiny thanks to the accusations and butchered reports coming to light detailing the level of corruption inside Fifa, and the conduct of the host nations in waiting. With the death toll of workers in Qatar creating unwelcome records everyday, and the Russians busying themselves with the blatant destruction of evidence, it’s easy to distance oneself from a tournament morally before a ball has even been kicked.
Yet, unlike at boardroom level, the actual footballing aspect of the CAN comes with a refreshing lack of entitlement. There are moments in almost every tournament that remind you exactly why so many people, including yourself, love the sport so dearly. Who can forget the heart-warming scenes when Zambia won the competition in 2012, with coach Herve Renard carrying an earlier injured Joseph Musonda all the way from the bench to the corner flag so that he could celebrate with the rest of his team? What about Algeria in 1990, winning the first rebranded CAN in front of 100,000 fans? Or there’s 1996, where Nelson Mandela handed winning South African captain Neil Tovey the trophy, in yet another public display against apartheid, which had only ended two years earlier. Finally, there was a game in 2010, where consecutive goals in the 79th, 88th, 93rd and 94th minute handed Mali a remarkable injury-time draw against Angola, who had lead 4-0 since the 72nd minute.
Qualifying for the tournament has only just finished and the draw for the group stages has yet to be made, but there’s still plenty to get excited about already. Will the 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso go one step better this time around? Will the Côte d’Ivoire finally shake off their bottler status and win the tournament with their ‘golden generation’ for the first time since 1992? Will one of the seven qualifying nations without a previous championship to their name win the tournament for their country for the first time? With 15 separate winners in the 56 years the tournament has been played, it’s a far more open competition than the World Cup, which has only had eight separate winners in its 84 years.
This is a tournament well worth your time – it can’t be stressed enough – and one you’ll no doubt become engrossed with if you allow yourself to. Almost a perfect antidote to the over-hyped, oversold, corporate profit venture that is the Premier League, the almost forgotten nature of the CAN is what makes it great. Treated as burden on club football due to its clash with the league season, fans shouldn’t embrace that negative rhetoric, but welcome the games being played halfway across the planet.
Football in this country has become little more than a selfish forum for negativity and forced agendas, with fans of clubs across the land making a mockery of themselves on every media outlet possible before and after games. If you want to see football in an environment where support is strong regardless of result, where winning is the desire for everyone involved and cynicism doesn’t exist, it’s time you got on board with the Coupe d’Afrique des Nations – you won’t regret it.
Follow Raj on Twitter: @BainsXIII