The emergence of debutantes at the last Nations Cup finals is, sadly, indicative of an alarming decline in playing standards, for which African football will pay a humiliating price at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, warns our Football Editor Osasu Obayiuwana.
Three weeks of matches in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea managed, fortunately, to produce a pulsating final, as well as an extremely worthy – even if not the most technically gifted and tactically astute – winner of the Cup of Nations, in contrast to the poor quality of games (with the Morocco v Tunisia clash being one of the rare exceptions) that characterised the group stages.
As fans of the continental game turn their eyes to South Africa, which will host the next tournament (the first that will be held in an odd-numbered year since 1965) in less than 12 month’s time, political manoeuvering in the game’s corridors of power is conjuring results that are guaranteed not to push the African game to a needed new plateau.
With the retrogressive – but not unsurprising – step at the last Confederation of African Football (CAF) congress, in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, endorsing Issa Hayatou for a seventh presidential term, when his current mandate runs out in January 2013, the message being sent out to the frustrated fraternity, demanding real and sustained change, is loud and clear – charting a fresh course, which can only emanate from a new group of untainted, visionary leaders, is unwelcome and unnecessary.
Hayatou, guaranteed an unprecedented 25 years as CAF president, ascending to office in 1988, during the Nations Cup in Morocco, has, once again, exhibited the street smarts that have enabled him to stay at the top, despite repeated calls for the Cameroonian to stand down.
It was only a year ago, at the congress in Khartoum, Sudan, that the 66-year-old claimed he was prepared to throw in the towel, “if only the people” let him.
“If members of CAF leave me free to choose, I will take the decision to leave, because I personally want to stop, as I have indicated on several occasions,” he said then.
“The hours of flying, always being in airports and hotels, is not something that I particularly enjoy. It takes a serious toll on one’s health.”
But, of course, the wily Hayatou added the all-important condition: “If most or all of the members ask me to continue, I will bow to their decision.”
Hayatou’s decision has certainly thrown a spanner in the works, as the ambition of several people, most notably Jacques Anouma, the FIFA executive committee member and former president of the Ivorian Football Federation, is up in the air.
Having traversed the continent, in order to build a groundswell of support amongst the various national federation/association bosses that will elect the CAF president at next year’s congress, Anouma was seen as the frontrunner to succeed Hayatou.
Danny Jordaan, the CEO of the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee, the most popular choice amongst ordinary African football fans – and certainly with the right fit of experience and intellect – to become CAF president, has been unable to overcome his biggest challenge – getting the support of a hostile voting constituency that decides who gets the plum job.
His failure to win a FIFA executive committee seat at the 2010 CAF congress in Khartoum, as well as a botched bid to become the President of the Congress of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) in Botswana last year, has done significant damage to the enviable profile he has built.
“The problem with Danny is that he is seen as arrogant and aloof by many federation presidents across the continent,” a prominent FA president from West Africa once told me.
“There is no question that he has what it takes to be CAF president. But it is no good having the intellectual qualities if you cannot get the votes of those who decide the presidency. For those who are close to him, they should advise him to improve relations with people around the continent,” he said.
As the jostling for political power and influence in the African game continues, a stark, uncomfortable fact is evident to anyone who is unblinkered – football, at least at the national team level, is in decline or, at best, in a state of suspended animation.
Our inability to have more than one team in the knockout stages of the World Cup finals, even when we had a record six teams at the 2010 edition in South Africa, is a resounding indictment of those whose hands are on the administrative levers.
That teams like Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Algeria – four of the continent’s six 2010 World Cup teams – failed to qualify, a year later, for the just concluded Nations Cup tournament, lays bare the ineptitude and maladministration that enabled countries like Botswana and Niger to qualify for their debut.
Make no mistake, the qualification of the debutantes at the 2012 tournament happened not because the quality of national team matches within the continent has risen. Their emergence is a direct consequence of the general drop in standards, in which the lowest common denominator reigns supreme.
This state of being provides welcome opportunities for the so-called smaller nations to happily gatecrash the Nations Cup party, which, obviously, is politically popular for CAF’s mandarins.
But the continent will pay a very high price, in front of the watching global fraternity, for its folly at the next World Cup finals in Brazil. And that, everyone, is the tragedy.