Archive for the ‘CAN 2008’ Category

Ghana – Part 2.

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

The difficulty for groundhoppers visiting tournaments such as the African Cup of Nations is that we cannot always stay for the full tournament. The Cup takes three weeks, but has only four venues, so all can be visited, and all the teams concerned can be seen by taking a trip in the first week. So by the time the knock-out matches start, I am limited to seeing them on the TV. Having seen all the teams, I did have the measure of the quarter-finals; Ghana beat Nigeria with goals from Michael Essien and Junior Agogo – Yakubu had put the Nigerians ahead, while Guinea, still without the suspended Pascal Feindounou were never a match for Ivory Coast – Guinea collapsed in the second half and went down 5-0. Another super-strike by Manchester United bound Manuchno was not enough to stop Egypt progressing 2-1, and Cameroon got the better of Tunisia in a lengthy tie, finishing 3-2 aet.

Over the course of the week, we travelled around the country by a variety of transport methods. The inter-city coach is the easiest, with a fixed timetable (which is not always adhered to), and fixed prices, and a degree of comfort. The tro-tro, mini-buses than can seat 22 people lose any degree of comfort, and work on a fill up and go basis. This can mean an indefinite period waiting before the transport leaves. The prices are fixed, and by paying for two seats in order to give oneself more space, means paying more than the bus fare. The longest overland step of our journey, from Kumasi to Tamale was done on an overnight tro-tro taking 8 hours. The five members of our party took 11 seats between, firstly for comfort, and then to get the bus on the road. We left soon after midnight, but one could imagine waiting until daylight before the bus filled up. Air travel also has its problems – we had tried to book our one internal flight by internet from the UK, and had apparently made a reservation – but not paid. Payment had to be in cash, and had to be done locally. Fortunately we sorted this the day before travelling, when we found our ‘reservations’ were not on their list (but there were still enough spaces for us), and that the flight was to depart four hours earlier than the schedule quoted on the internet! For us, local transport within towns was by taxi, which were the same as most taxis, slightly decrepit vehicles being driven at too fast a speed. Most would give a sensible local rate quickly with negotiation. One of two tried their luck to up the rates for white men, but would then give up when challenged. Basically, you can travel anywhere in the capital for not more than £2, while half that will do in the other cities. At the end of my trip, our taxi was travelling too fast down a dual carriageway when another pulled out in front of it. Fortunately, the speeds were not so great that the lack of seat belts came into play, and only the taxis were dented.

We visited four cities on the trip, and it is fair to say that none of them are likely to become tourist centres in the near future, although there are areas of the coastline that could be developed as such. Accra is the capital, and although it has the busy, bustling activities of any major city, it also has many quiet districts in between. The stadium is based centrally, next to independence square and only a few hundred yards from the coast. It lacks a true centre, or any buildings or monuments of distinction. The oldest buildings are forts that go back to colonial days, when the country was the Gold Coast, although trade was more in slaves than gold. It is the people, the markets and the colours that make the city though – especially the joyous explosion of noise that fills the popular areas after the home team has won a match. All the other cities seemed quite small by comparison. Kumasi was our second port of call, and the one city other than the capital that we went to twice. The features here are some idiosyncratic statues, such as a man standing on the back of a lion – which sits just outside a colonial era church, which appears freshly painted in brown and white. Tamale is the most northerly of our ports of call, featured the Gulpke Na Palace – which turned out to be a series of connected huts, where any serious looking around might have felt like intrusion on those families who now live there. In Tamale, we also noticed another change in that while the other communities had Christian churches, the biggest building here was a mosque. Tamale was the dusty city – one did not have to go far to reach roads that were just red dirt, and the dust from these seemed to pervade everywhere. Finally we went to Takoradi, which is the bigger of a pair of cities, (the football actually took place in its little brother, Sekondi, 12 km away). Here the centre was a large roundabout/market, although having a hotel that fronted onto this turned out not to be a problem, as it was closed down before the football started, and was slow to start up in the morning. During the day, it was a mass of confusing colours, noises and smells. From my hotel window, one floor up, I could see beyond some of the colonial frontages into the interior of the 100 yard diameter circle – and it appeared the whole area was full of shacks with tin roofs.

Between the cities, the towns we passed through were of a similar type. For the most part, small single storey buildings with walls of wood, brick, or often dried mud, (or dried mud used as a plaster to cover other materials?), with tin or wooden roofing. Commercial properties always congregate towards the main road in an attempt to catch the eye of passing trade. It seemed a feature that many towns seemed to concentrate on a single main commodity, so as we passed one, we would see many stalls selling honey, whereas the next may only sell fruits. The land, even close to the villages appeared mainly uncultivated, either for crops or for the grazing of animals. One clear difference between life here, and those countries in Asia which are far more familiar to me is that where clearly many people live poorly, and subsistence farming and trading, there is far less ostentatious wealth here. While this could mean that here in Africa, the difference between rich and poor is lower – there may be other reasons. Do the wealthy of this part of Africa not display their wealth here, but instead move it north to Europe or America?

The other question one must ask, in Asia – any country with a large but cheap work force is exploited as a source of cheap labour by capitalist countries, (I won’t say Western, as the Japanese, Koreans and even the Chinese now run much of this). While some may question the morals behind these modern business methods, it does bring money into the countries concerned, fuelling the massive growth rates of the Asian tigers. As we travelled through Ghana, though – there was no sign of similar investment. Ghana is one of the most stable countries in the region, so where is the foreign investment? To the purist, this may present an idealised state, as not only do the industrialists fear to tread, but also there is no McDonald’s or KFC, (you can never escape Guinness or Coca-Cola though). Is it a fear of accusations of new forms of colonialism that keeps the international companies at bay? Does the instability of some African governments prevent investment in their neighbours? Or is it the fact that West African countries, including Ghana were at the centre of the slave trade that makes any type of exploitation an anathema in the current world?

We visited one stadium in each city, those in Kumasi and Accra having been upgraded for the tournament, while Sekondi and Tamale had brand new constructions. In a unique arrangement with the Shanghai Construction Company, the two new stadiums were practically identical, in what has been called the first “buy one, get one free” deal in stadium construction.

The National Stadium in Accra is known as the Ohene Djan stadium, after the first president of the Ghanaian Football Association, and first sports minister of the independent state. Over more than three-quarters of the circumference of the stadium, it is a two tier, basically concrete construction. The upper tier slightly overlaps the back of the lower tier, and this area is popular with the crowds, especially those whose seats are near the front of the stadium. Despite the lack of a running track, there is quite a distance from the front row of seats to the pitch, as with a ten foot clear plastic screen to contend with, viewing is poor near the front. Along the length of the fourth side is a two tier covered stand, which stands independently from the rest of the construction. This has a concrete cantilevered roof. Most of the VIP and press areas are in the lower level of this stand, and oddly, here too there is enough fencing and barriers to make many of the views disappointing. The uncluttered upper tier is better. The stadium of used by local clubs, including Hearts of Oak, which along with Asante Kotoko make up the ‘big two’ of Ghanaian football.

Asante Kotoko play their home games at the Baba Yaya stadium in Kumasi. This is actually a little bigger than the national stadium and is also used by the national team. Again, the main curve of seats surrounds most of the ground, with the main stand an almost separate entity. As at Accra, the seating comes right down to pitch level, and this time there is a running track as well, so those low level seats are again poor.

The other two stadiums, as I said are brand new and identical. A single tier of seats, but this time with the lowest seats raised about 10 feet higher than the pitch and its surrounding running track. The barrier that prevents people falling over the parapet though is positioned such that it interferes with the views for the lower three rows, and there are similar problems where the barriers are to keep the sections apart. Unlike the two older venues, the roof does cover the entirety of the seating areas, It is of the type made popular in Germany for the World Cup with a canvas like membrane stretched over a maze of scaffolding. It curves upwards towards the middle of stand on both sides, although this is just for effect, as the seats are no higher here than elsewhere. Anyway, the roofing if projected high above the seats, and yet comes forward no further than the seating, so protection against rain would be limited unless there was no wind at all, and everyone on the East side has the sun in their face at the 5p.m. starts for the games.

In all the grounds, there is a cacophony of noise. You do not get the chanting and singing of a European match, but instead a continuous beating of drums and blowing of horns. While this beat seems unchanging throughout each game, and regardless of the score, there is always a further collective cheer whenever the favoured team starts an attack, and a massive roar whenever Ghana score.

By the semi-finals, Ghana and Ivory Coast were clear favourites. Certainly Ghana should have had big advantages against Cameroon – the visitors had played their qualifier 28 hours later than their hosts, played extra time and then had to travel to Accra on the following day. Cameroon overcame all this, and the crowd to win when Alain Nkong scored the only goal. Nkong, coming on as substitute for Joseph Desire Job, currently plays in Mexico, but has also played in Spain, Portugal and the USA. The least explaining incident of the entire tournament was in injury time, when Reading’s Andre Bikey decided to push over an ambulance man attending one of his Cameroon team mates, when the time wasted was, of course, in his team’s favour. The red card earned meant he missed the final. In Kumasi, Egypt had a slight ‘home’ advantage, as the match against the Ivory Coast was the fifth successive one they played there – the Ivorians playing their earlier games in Sekondi and Accra. Egypt, who had beaten their rivals twice in the last tournament (3-1 in a group match, and on penalties after the final finished scoreless) maintained their record with a 4-1 win.
Ghana won the third place play-off, also putting four past the Ivory Coast (4-2). The final, naturally was a closer affair, with a near full stadium despite Ghana’s fall. Egypt won when Mohamed Zidan dispossessed Rigobert Song and teed up the chance for Abo Trika. This was Egypt’s sixth title, the competition record. Eto’o, with five goals (all in the group games) was top scorer, but Manucho scored four as did three Egyptians, Abo Trika, Hosny and Amr Zakr.

The next tournament is in Angola in 2010, provisionally Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have been chosen to co-host in 2012 and Libya in 2014. The CAF are insisting that even beyond 2014, the competition will still be played in January – a time when the climate across the continent allows play in any area. Sepp Blatter’s statements are that a January tournament will not be permitted ahead of a June/July World cup in the same year. The probably compromise is that the next tournament after 2014 will be 2017, and then the two year cycle will be in odd years.

Ghana – Part 1.

Monday, February 11th, 2008

(This is part 1 of a two part Ghana summary – an extension of the report printed in the Cheltenham Town programme of 9th February. The second part, which will appear on 16th February will also be extended onto this site. Any programme editor that wishes to take items from this site is free to do so, so long as I am creditied and sent a copy of the programme – feel free to edit as you wish, or ask me for the shortened copy as used by Cheltenham).

Why does one travel? In my case it may be an attempt to broaden the mind, and hopefully not to broaden the stomach anymore? As you know, I always use the football as an excuse to define my travels across the world, but it is only an excuse – if there was no football, then I would just find some other basis for my travels.

Before this year’s African Cup of Nations, I had picked on four sides, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal to top the groups and reach the semi-finals. As someone who does not see much about Africa between tournaments, I rely on the form at previous tournaments, plus the old adage – which says that the Arabic Africans of the North, and the Black Africans from south of the Sahara do not tend to fare well in each others lands. And so, despite the fact that both the last two winners, Tunisia (2004) and Egypt (2006) were from the North, I downplayed what was, after all home successes, and instead selected the home side, and some of its regional neighbours. By the time I had seen all the teams play once, including Egypt’s demolition of Cameroon in their first game, I made only one change to the last four prediction, replacing the extremely disappointing Senegal with Egypt. A week after leaving the country, my revised semi-final list was proved right. With the deadline for this article being before the semi-finals, I am expecting Ghana to play the Ivory Coast in the final, but whoever it is, it should be a good match. (Live on BBC2 tomorrow afternoon).

And so to Ghana, and the African Cup of Nations. This is my first footballing trip to sub-Saharan Africa, as the last two tournaments were held in Tunisia and Egypt. I travelled out and back with Ghana International Airways – a single plane operation (and that single plane has Icelandair insignia on the tail and winglets, and a warning that smoking in the lavatories is against Icelandic law), operating a daily flight between Accra and London Gatwick. It is a little different to other airlines (other than they have run out of earphones, and play the movie soundtrack in the PA), and saves £100 over BA, or changing in Amsterdam.

The flight actually arrived in Accra while the opening match was in progress. The inside of the airport buildings were quiet, except for a cheer that went up when the hosts scored the tournament’s first goal. Outside, there was no shortage of hassle though, two locals immediately took it upon themselves to guide as we moved from the international terminal to the domestic terminal (to enquire, not successfully about an internal flight) and back, looking for the car that the hotel had sent to pick us up. In the end, they asked for a tip of about £10, having failed to do the only thing we had actually asked (call the hotel to check the car was there). I was glad to find out that this was a one-off, and we were not generally asked for a tip every time we requested directions. In fact, most of the locals were extremely friendly and helpful, and one of the advantages of visiting a country where the culture of tourism is not so developed is that you are not seen as a walking cashpoint machine by the locals.

I did here a lot of stories of the visiting fans being targeted by criminals, although the crime was always of a ‘sneak’ nature, and I did not hear of one threatening incident. Certainly you had to be careful of your wallets and passports, (passports in particular being a favourite steal), and I made sure to always leave mine back at the hotel. Sadly, I did become a victim at one stage. I cannot be certain, but this was almost certainly more down to carelessness on my part – as it was my computer that went missing. It seems most likely I put it down in the stadium’s media centre and only thought I had placed it in my suitcase, as to remove the machine from the suitcase (nothing else was stolen) would have been difficult. Unfortunately, this problem was compounded by the failure of the locals organisation to communicate across its various branches, so while I was trying to get someone to head directly back to see if my computer was still in Kumasi, (I had travelled the 8 hours to Tamale before spotting its absence), it actually took 24 hours to get this message through.

Despite this setback, I never felt unsafe on the streets of Ghana. I never got the impression that there is much violent crime there. A couple of times when I said I was from England, there was a comment about ‘our colonial masters’, but it was always said without malice. I have rarely found, even in former British colonies, and resentment against the Brits, and it seems this is true even in what was once the heart of the slave trade.

There was an ancient kingdom of Ghana, which reached the height of its powers in the tenth century and practically disappearing 300 years later. Modern Ghana, though has no common territory with the ancient Kingdom, and was a name chosen more as symbolic when under Nkrumah, it became the first African colony to gain independence from European rule in 1957. The name of the area under European rule was the Gold coast, and the original colonists were Portuguese traders, who build a series of forts along the coast, and then traded for gold from inland, without ever taking control of the land. Over the years, there were many clashes between the Portuguese, the Dutch and even the Danes – the British arrived a lot later – at the end of the 17th century, and they were the first to exploit the area for slaves. (This was not because the Dutch or the Portuguese were innocent in terms of the slave trade, but they preferred to trade their slaves from Angola or Nigeria, concentrating in this area in trading gold). When the British arrived, they could not wrest the gold trade from Dutch control, so instead traded for slaves. For the next century, slaves were the main commodity of this area of Africa, and around one million people were transported through the ports of Ghana in this period. The European presence was still confined to the coastline for years to come, while the interior of the state was the preserve of African kingdoms, mainly the Fante and Ashanti who fought for power, with the support (as and when was convenient) of either the Brits or the Dutch. The Gold coast was made a British crown colony in 1874, although it then only extended inland for about 50 km. The rest of Ghana became British ‘possessions’ over the following 20 odd years, mainly to prevent them from becoming the territory of other European powers.

So when Ghana became an independent state, it was a combination of many different tribal lands bought together for the convenience of British rule, and not for that of its successors. This has been the way of the world not only for Africa, but for much of the world that was once colonised by the Europeans. Keeping a stable government in such conditions is not easy. Either the various groupings have to reach an (often uneasy) truce, or one group will take power by force. History has proved that with politicians only too willing to mark a slight by one group against another (in Ghana, even the names of the stadiums is a cause for debate), there are not so many things that act to bind a country together.

As with just about every other former colony in Africa, home rule for Ghana has not been an easy ride, with various coups, counter coups and dictators. Jerry Rawlings was dictator from 1982 to 1991, and then elected president for a decade; but then stepped down in line with the constitution he had proposed, which limited the president’s term in off – and allowing a peaceful change of leadership. John Kuffour’s tenure will end soon, and hopefully another peaceful change.

In lands with so many disparate forces pulling in different directions, anything that brings the people together has to be a good thing, and sport is one such thing. Everywhere we went, football was the first subject of conversation. This was not just because we were tourists and obviously there for the sport – the matches filled the front, back and centre pages of all the newspapers. European, and especially English football is popular, (although I am think live English football may be limited to satellite TV). At least two of the local football clubs (Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko) have their own daily papers, as well as web sites to spread their message.

As is the standard for this type of competition, we started with four groups of four teams, each allocated to one city. Accra had the hosts, who beat Guinea in the opening match, along with Morocco who overpowered Namibia the following day. Soufienne Alloudi, who plays for Al-Ain in UAE scored a hat-trick within 28 minutes, but as Namibia started to suffer in the second half, they committed a series of fouls earning five yellow cards – Alloudi was the first to be substituted with an injury, and did not play again in the tournament. When I got back to Accra, the matches were a double header, with the first of the two games being the most interesting and vital. The star of this show, Guinea v Morocco was Pascal Feindouno of St. Etienne. Feindouno is also the captain of Guinea, and gave his side an early lead which stood through to half time. There was then a ten minute flurry of events early in the second half – firstly Feindouno got fouled, allowing Ismael Bangoura to increase the lead from the penalty spot. This did not last long, as Hicham Aboucherouane hit back almost immediately. It was Feindouno himself that restored the two goal cushion two minutes later, and it was a cushion that Guinea needed, as Feindouno then contrived to get himself sent off. With the man advantage, Morocco pushed, but only got on the scoresheet once more, in the final minute. The loss of Feindouno was felt by Guinea beyond this game, as he was suspended for two games, a lame draw with Namibia, and a tame defeat when the knock out games started. The match was followed by a nervy match for the hosts against Namibia, in which a single goal from Junior Agogo provided them with all points. My third visit gave me one more match – as Guinea and Namibia had decamped to Sekondi to play a simultaneous kick off. I saw Ghana needing just one point to be group winners finally live up to their potential in beating Morocco by 2-0. The power of the host side comes from the midfield, and the two goals in this match were by Essien, set up by Muntari, and then Muntari, set up by Essien. The forward line of Asamoah Gyan and Agogo looks to be the weak link, but Agogo has the knack of getting crucial goals.

My second series of matches was in Kumasi, a stadium which I visited twice picking up four games in all. None of these was better than the group opener, which saw the holders, Egypt playing Cameroon. It is generally thought that the holders would struggle in this game – the opposite was the case, as they took the game to Cameroon, scoring two quick goals, and despite two second half strikes by Samuel Eto’o, who is now the leading goal scorer in Africa Cups, Egypt ended up victors by 4-2. the second match was a straight forward affair, in which Zambia comfortably dealt with Sudan, winning 3-0 and raised the possibility that they would cause problems for Cameroon in the next game. This too was not to be, I returned to Kumasi to find that Cameroon had recovered their composure, while the Zambian defence was in a charitable mood, gifting the Cameroonians three goals of the five they scored. Sudan then reprised their role as easy to beat, losing 3-0 to Egypt. They also lost 3-0 in the final game to Cameroon, while Egypt, taking things a little easier, picked up the point to win the group with a draw against Zambia.

Group D in Tamale was the last to get going. The opening games in this group being my only visit – which is a pity as the drama here was in the second round of fixtures. I saw an entertaining game in which Tunisia took the lead against Senegal, but then got into trouble with an equaliser on the stroke of half time, seriously against the run of play, and a second goal putting Senegal ahead. Tunisia levelled the match with 8 minutes to go. South Africa against Angola was also a draw, 1-1 – but it was a point the South Africans did not deserve. The Angolan goal was down to some great play by Flavio, an Angolan striker who plays for Al-Ahli in Egypt, who brought the ball down and then made the short cross for the head of Mateus Alberto, aka Manuchno – the Manchester United bound striker who came across as one of the stars of the tournament. I saw the second round game on TV from Accra, in a small bar run by a coach on the staff of the Heart of Lions club. (Although Heart of Lions is from Kpando, about a three hour dive away, they train in Accra). Senegal scored first, but they were then eclipsed by the Angolans, with two goals from Manuchno, one from Flavio as they won by 3-1. Tunisia beat South Africa, by the same scoreline, which meant that when Tunisia played Angola, a draw would see both through – the teams did not look to collude from the start, but by midway through the second half, you could see no desire to disturb the status quo and the match finished 0-0. As South Africa and Senegal also drew, even this did not really matter.

That leaves Group B in Sekondi, where I missed the opening games, played on the day that Morocco beat Namibia – these were two hard fought 1-0 wins, with Nigeria losing to the Ivory Coast, while Mali beat Benin. In the second series, the Ivory Coast were just to powerful for Benin, winning by 4-1 while Nigeria against Mali which was the only truly dull game I saw on the tour ended scoreless. This left Ivory Coast needing only a point from the final game to be group winners, and Mali needing a point to end up as runners-up, but even the prospect of two French speakers ganging up on the Anglophonic Nigerians did not create collusion – The Ivorians beat Mali by 3-0, allowing Nigeria to sneak through with a 2-0 win over Bali.

Ghana Photo Gallery

Monday, February 4th, 2008














Still Rolling Along! The Ghana Summary.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

From Kumasi, it is about seven hours by road to Tamale (and that is if you are lucky). One of our first ports of call was the bus station, where we were informed that the next day’s bus was already fully booked. The obvious course was to find a hotel and chance our luck on a tro-tro early in the morning – but we decided it may be better to chance our luck without the hotel, and start overnight.

So immediately after the Zambia-Sudan game, pausing only to get my computer connected to the internet and send in my last report, I met with the others and we found taxis, asking for the tro-tro station for buses to Tamale. We thought we were heading to a newly renovated station mentioned in the guide book, but instead we were ferried to rough car back not far from the stadium. Here a rickety minibus was pointed out, and tickets were bought for the long trip ahead. It was soon after 10 p.m. and we there were only three people on board before our quintet turned up. Three of us elected to take extra seats (in my case with the demand I got to ‘ride shotgun’ next to the driver), so half of the 22 seats had been sold. We waited and occasionally others would turn up – just after midnight, the numbers had increased to 19 – but still the bus would wait. Only when all 22 seats have been sold would it move. Under pressure, the last two of our party agreed to reduce their liability to DVT and buy second seats and then the five of us shared the cost of the final berth, to allow the bus to get away – without us, I imagine it would have been five or six in the morning before it made a move!

The ride to Tamale was not uneventful, although I am glad to say I managed to sleep through most of it. The road itself is generally in a good condition, and from time to time we would pass the wreck of a lorry or car that may have happened six months or six years ago, and just dragged to the side of the road. Then about an hour before the destination, we reached a bus that had gone over on its side. This wreck, sitting in the middle of the road was clearly new, and the vehicle was relatively modern as well. A few people were milling around the wreck, but I think these were unlikely to have been passengers, most of whom must have been transported away in search of medical attention.

We then had to find a hotel, the guide book recommending a couple of hostels to the north of the town centre, we arrived and found them full, but one sent us around to another place, which turned out to involve more than a mile of travel over unlit dirt roads, hardly a place where we could easily return after the game, or find a taxi to take us to the airport at six the following morning, fortunately, our taxi driver then made another suggestion, which was more conveniently within walking distance of the stadium and on a major tarmac covered road. The building was uninviting at the entrance, but for the local equivalent of GBP10, I got myself a room with a fan, a bathroom and cold water supply during the evening and morning.

There was even a plug to use my computer from, so I made to get it out of my bag, only to discover it was not there. I will never find out exactly what happened to it. My intention had been to deposit it within its own bag, and then put that bag inside my suitcase – but I do not have a clear memory beyond folding it closed and waiting for the light to go out, to make sure it had stopped correctly. I may have then put it down and only thought it was in the case, or I may have placed it in the suitcase, in which case someone managed to remove it during the journey.

As the earlier possibility was the most likely, I headed direct to the stadium in search of someone to report the loss to, someone who could call the Kumasi stadium and have a quick check made to see if the PC was still there. It took about an hour to find the phone number of someone to help, he said he would call Kumasi to get a check run on whether my computer was still there – but when I returned to the stadium in the evening, I found out (very slowly) that the person contacted was on the road to Tamale, it took until after the two games before I was given an actual name and number of someone in Kumasi, and this meant no check was made to see if my computer had been left until the next morning. Very annoying, as it seriously reduced the slim chance I had of recovering the machine.

By contrast with the other places we visited, Tamale can be described as the dusty city. With many dirt roads as soon as you reach the edge of town, the rust red dust from these soon gets on all your clothes, and it appeared impossible to remove it completely from any building. Overall, our visits to Ghanaian cities did not produce much in the way of sightseeing, as there are few old buildings in the country, and the most of the oldest are those from British colonial rule. The Gulpke Na palace in Tamale was an exception though – a series of small thatched huts joined together by walls. The fact that this was still being used as living accommodation by local families meant anything more than a cursory tour outside and a couple of photos may have been taken as too much intrusion. It shows the contrast between Ghana and countries where tourism is considered a major source of income, as if there was a regular stream of foreigners, this would have been a good place to fleece them of their money.

To describe the new stadiums of Tamale and Sekondi (which we visited later) separately would be a waste of words, in a unique, buy-one, get-one-free offer from Shanghai Construction, the two stadiums have been build to exactly the same specification. They have a track around the playing field, but the stands are built up so as the lowest seat is about 10 foot higher than the playing surface. This elevation provides much better viewing than those with stands dropping to ground level. A single tier of seats curves all around the stadium, and the whole thing is covered at some height by a roof. The roof is made of the canvas material favoured by the Germans for the last world cup, and is supported by a complex scaffolding of metal tubes. It is one of those that rises above the centre portion of the seating area, but the reason for this is not clear, as the seating does not go any higher of deeper in this area. The roofing did not appear to extend further forward than the front row of seats around the stadium, and with it being raised well above the seating, one imagines that if it was wet and windy, all the spectators on one side might get wet. Meanwhile, starting the match in the heat of late afternoon, the roof provides no shade at all to the Eastern side of the ground.

So starting in the heat of said afternoon, our first game in Tamale saw Tunisia take on Senegal. Tunisia used four players from the local league in their team which included players from the German, Swiss, Russian, French and English Leagues in a 4-3-3 formation, while Senegal were split with five players from each of the Premiership and the French League, with a single representative from the Portuguese League. Issam Jemaa gave Tunisia the lead in the 9th minute, and it the 2002 winners looked the best for most of the first half, but they were surprised when Senegal levelled on the stroke of half time. The second half started with Senegal on top, and Tunisia looking out of the game. Desperation appeared to set in early as the Japanese referee booked Dos Santos for a dive which certainly would not have graced the Olympics. The normally dependable Niang should have put Senegal ahead just before the hour mark, when receiving a cross from Mendy on the left wing. This was the last action before Mendy was replaced by Henri Camara – a good move for the team as he added pace and guile to the forward line, helping cause confusion in the penalty area from which Diomansy Kamara put Senegal ahead. As the game went on though, the pendulum was swinging back to Tunisia – still it took a great long shot from Medji Traoui to level the scores. This was the last goal of a really entertaining game, far better as it turned out than the one that followed between Angola and South Africa. South Africa have failed to impress in recent African Cups, and this was to be no exception – for most of the game they were overshadowed in every department by the Angolan side. Playing up front for Angola was the partnership of Flavio Amado, who plays in Egypt for Al Ahli, and Mateus Alberto of Petro de Luanda in Angola. Flavio looks like a really skilful player, and the way he controlled the ball and set up the goal for Alberto. Alberto on the other hand looked like a real predator. It is common with players in Portuguese speaking countries such as Angola that they can take a name other than their actual name. Mateus Alberto is better known as Manucho and has been signed by Manchester United. South Africa were lucky to come out of the game with a point, when Elrio Van Heerden scored late in the match.

If getting into Tamale involved a long hard ride in a tro-tro from Kumasi, returning from Tamale to Accra involved as much luck as judgement – and no little cash as well. Knowing that our longest trip within Ghana was best done by air, we had researched the flight companies before leaving, and even made a ‘reservation’ on the local companies web page. Although this allows us to print off a reservation – the system leaves payment until you get to Ghana. We had asked, when arriving at Accra about our reservations, and we were told they were OK, but that no one could take out payment at the time (too busy watching the game on TV). In Tamale, though we got a different story. Not only were our reservations imaginary, but the flight was actually four hours earlier than the time we had been given. Fortunately, when our boys got to the office, only 27 of the 34 seats on the flight had been reserved, so we managed to get our quintet on board, for the minor sum of US$150 each.

Of course, this was another day, so it also means another two games. We were back in Accra, and the first of the four groups had to undergo their second games. First up was Guinea against Morocco. Guinea had lost to the hosts in the opening game, while Morocco had thrashed Namibia by 5-1. The star of the show was Pascal Feindouno, as St. Etienne midfielder who has been rumoured to be wanted by Liverpool. His record was to open the scoring in the 11th minute with a splendid curling free kick from the left, and then delivered a perfect through ball for Ismael Bangoura to increase the lead just before the hour. Aboucheroune pulled one back for Morocco almost straight away, but then Guinea won a penalty and Feindouno was again on hand to score. At 3-1, the Guinea skipper must have felt like a break, so he kicked out at a player holding him, and picked up the tournament’s first red card. This did not matter much in terms of the match, with Morocco only pulling the score back to 3-2 in the closing minutes, but the lack of the inspiration he provides to side made them look flat in drawing with Namibia in the final group game, and the suspension means he also misses the first knock out game against the Ivory Coast.

The main game was Ghana against Namibia, with the home fans hopeful of a hat full against a side that did so poorly in their opening game, but it was not to be. The game was nervous and flat, and Namibia were determined to prove that the opener was not their real game. They succeeded in frustrating the home side most of the time, while both in this game and their next group game against Morocco, I felt that while the Ghana midfield, especially Michael Essien and Sully Muntari were excellent, the forward line of Junior Agogo and Udinese’s Asamoah Gyan were not up to the job. As it was though, Agogo scored just before half time to give his side a 1-0 win.

Never people to stand still, the next day we were off to Takoradi. Takoradi is the major part of a two city conurbation, with its partner, Sekondi about 12 km away containing the football stadium. From Accra, the bus service takes you to Takoradi, and it is the easier to get way from, so that is where we went. On arriving, we settled into a small, friendly but rather less than clean hotel in the very centre. This was the most interesting stop of the trip, with a very colourful market immediately outside my window.

Always among the favourites, the Ivory Coast had a 1-0 win over Nigeria in their opening match, and were now up against outsiders Benin. Although Benin put up some good resistance in the first half, they were eventually brushed aside. Didier Drogba rushed onto a through ball to score the first just before half time. Yaya Toure quickly added to it, and Abdul Keita and Aruna Dindane added more. The Ivorians relaxed after this, and Benin got a consolation in the final minute. It was followed by the dullest game I saw on tour, and the only game without goals as Nigeria played Mali.

Having managed to expand our group of five to nine for the next leg, we managed a private hire of a minibus with driver for the next leg, and travelled in relative comfort. This made up in some way for the fact that over 20km of the road between the second and third biggest cities in the country was just dirt, with no sign of tarmac for miles. We got back to Kumasi, found a small hotel (the cheapest on the trip at under £10, the only one without en-suite bathroom, but at least cleaner than Takoradi or Tamale, and again with friendly and helpful staff). I quite like Kumasi, despite the loss of my computer there, and I was happy to spend some time wandering around and admiring the rather odd statues. Outside the main church, there was a man standing on the back of a lion – the question being, how to dismount? (very carefully?).

Cameroon were beaten 4-2 by Egypt in their opening match, so they needed redemption against Zambia. The Zambians, by virtue of their 3-0 win over Sudan were in a position where progression was quite plausible, if they could get something out of this game.

As it turned out, the Zambian defence turned out to be the most generous charity in the country as they gifted three goals to Cameroon, and ended up defeated by 5-1. Egypt followed this up with a comfortable 3-0 win over Sudan. I did not return to Tamale, so my last but one day in Ghana was my only football free day of the tour. We used the bus to return to Accra, and I talked for a while with a research worker who was studying the economy of the coffee growers in some small village. He told me a little about the villages, which exist without running water or power, although foreign aid has provided them with diesel pumps, which is a step better than hand pumping water. Only one person in the village has a car, and although they may want to follow the football, they have to do it without the aid of a TV.

The arrival back in Accra was not as easy as I might have hoped. Somewhere during the journey, my stomach had turned, and I wanted to get back to the hotel quickly. The taxi driver thought he knew somewhere to buy tickets for the next day’s game, so we made a short stop at a radio station (it turned out to be an unsuccessful stop). Then on returning to the road, we started to speed through along the dual carriageway when another taxi pulled in front of us, and we smashed into its back. Still, like certain Martini’s, we were shaken but not stirred by the incident, and with a change of taxis, we managed to get to our hotel in one piece.

At least back in Accra, we had the benefit of a TV in order to watch the second round of Group D games. The feature of this was the eclipse of Senegal by Angolans. Back in 2002, El Hadji Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop had been stars as Senegal had beaten France in the World Cup. Now the same players were ordinary also-runs as Senegal themselves were beaten. Manucho and Flavio were again the stars for Angola. Less surprisingly, the match was followed by Tunisa beating South Africa, by the same scoreline 3-1.

Ghana holds it breath.

Monday, January 28th, 2008

We have played half the thirty-two games of the Nations Cup, and as yet, only one team cannot reach the knock out stages. Some teams chances are more than others though, and Senegal in particular have done a lot worse than expected, prompting their coach, Henri Kasperczak to resign his position immediately. It would have been little surprise had he been sacked before the third game anyway, and certainly he would have left the job soon after returning to Senegal empty handed, and probably now without a knock out game played. Kasperczak can expect to be joined by the majority of coaches whose teams lose out in the group stages, and a few others that go further but still do not reach expectations.

It is Group A that interests most Ghanaians, and the match against Morocco is key to their interests. As coach, Claude le Roy has been around long enough to know his job is not secure should he not get a result, but then with a dozen clubs already in his CV, no one would be surprised if he moved again, even if Ghana were to win the contest. His fellow Frenchman, Henri Michel is in a similar situation with the Morocco team. In the other match of the group, Guinea is expected to beat Namibia and therefore reach six points. Ghana already has six points, and so will go through (as group winners) and knock out Morocco if they win or draw. I personally expect Ghana to achieve this, and to go further in the tournament, but many of the locals are extremely nervous that Morocco will win, leaving three teams on six points.

In this case, the head to head counts first, hence should Morocco win by two (or more goals), they will win the group, Guinea (assuming a win) come second, and Ghana are out. A Morocco win by 1-0 means they will have scored and conceded three in the three team section, while Guinea have four (and therefore win the group), while Ghana have only two (out again). 2-1 also does not favour Ghana, but 3-2 leaves the possibility of the hosts and Guinea tied for second place – then the overall group’s goal difference comes in, and Ghana again look like losing out after only putting a single goal past Namibia.

The odd mathematical chance of Namibia qualifying would require that both they and Ghana win today.

Tomorrow, the better match will again be in Accra, where the Ivory Coast play Mali. The Ivorians were less then overwhelming in beating Nigeria in their first match, but then comfortably motored past Sudan. With six points, they are through to the next round, and a draw will see them confirmed as group winners. A group will also suit Mali, whose 0-0 draw against Nigeria was the dullest match of the tournament so far, but goes a long way to putting them through. Nigeria, who have been the most disappointing team so far, especially when the experience in the squad is reckoned with, should beat Benin, but this will only help should Mali lose their final game.

On Wednesday, action moves further North, with games in Kumasi and Tamale in group C. Egypt were stunning in the first game, and comfortable in the second and already have six points, like the hosts, they only need a draw against Zambia to be confirmed as group winners. Although, Zambia managed a good 3-0 win in their opening game, they came unstuck as their defence was broken by the Moroccans, showing a good spirit after their dispiriting opening game. Wins for Cameroon and Zambia would leave three teams on six points, wins for Egypt and Sudan would leave three teams on three – but I am expecting that neither of these scenarios happen, with Egypt not losing, while Cameroon will take the three points needed to go through.

I had to watch yesterday’s matches on TV, and I could not fail to be impressed by Angola’s second half demolition of Senegal; it seems that in signing Manuchno, Manchester United have picked up a predator with an eye for goal and a good header. Although given the choice, I think his strike partner, Flavio is an even better player; if you get the chance, look again at the Angola goal against South Africa and see the way Flavio controlled the ball before making the pass for Manuchno to head in Sadly for someone watching a club in League-1, I know we cannot match the wages Al-Ahli of Egypt can raise for him. South Africa, fortunate in getting a point against Angola, were then shown the door by Tunisia. On Thursday, Tunisia play Angola and a single point is the best result for both teams, this would put them both through with Tunisia winning the group. Should one team win, then the loser can only be caught by the team they did not beat yesterday, as head-to-head counts first in separating teams. Hence if Tunisia win, South Africa could come second by beating Senegal, but Senegal are out even if they win. If Angola beat Tunisia, then South Africa are out, but Senegal could still sneak through. Somehow, I expect a draw.

Post Match Footnotes

As it turned out, Ghana were too strong for Morocco, who offered less resistance in this game than they had against Guinea. The two goals were scored in the first half, with Essien reacting brilliantly to volley in a free kick from Muntari, and then returning the favour with a strong run, and then a pass for Muntari to score. In the other match, second half goals meant it finished 1-1, so Ghana go through with nine points, Guinea second with four, while Morocco and Namibia will go home

Africa’s games highlight Club and Country conflicts.

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Having lost my computer en-route, regular bulletins have ceased, but here is a general view of the politics surrounding the tournament. A summary of my trip will be added, probably next week

This biennial tournament is well known for creating and recreating a debate on the club versus country issue, as it takes players away from their paymasters for around a month.

For years the clubs have been upping their protests against the competition, or to be more accurate against all international football that does not meet their terms. Although never explicitly stated, the terms are along the lines of –

1. International teams should pay the clubs the players wages for the periods in which they are away on international duty
2. International teams should provide insurance for players on international duty, so as compensation is paid for any player who is injured.

Up to now, these demands have been refused on the simple basis that the international teams cannot afford it, but the massive amounts of cash now generated by the World Cups and European Championships have damaged the argument. The principal body arguing for the clubs has been the G-14, the oddly named group of 17 of the World’s richest, most popular clubs, and Bayer Leverkusen. The G-14 have long been a thorn in the side for the Football Confederations, and the have a nice trick of appearing to support the little guy, for example by bring a court case on behalf of Belgium club, Charleroi who not surprisingly are not members.

The case, which I have covered in this column before concerned Abdelmadjid Oulmers, who sustained an injury when playing for Morocco, keeping him from playing for his club team for best part of a year. As part of the case, G-14 asked for a massive €860 million as compensation not only for Charleroi but also for similar cases involving their own members. The monetary side of the case was dismissed by a Belgium court in May 2006, but this was only the start of things – as they then referred the issues concerned to the European Courts.

A fortnight ago, a meeting between FIFA, UEFA and the G-14 clubs resulted in them agreeing to drop the case, (and other court cases), and to disband as an organisation, with the football organisations instead recognising a new 100 member European Club Association (which will include at least one member from each of UEFA’s 53 states). As such an organisation will find it hard to reach a consensus unless bullied by the big clubs, this appears to be a victory for UEFA add FIFA, and a demonstration that since Platini had taken over at UEFA, the two bodies are working in unison, rather than in competition with each other.

In the week leading up the the African Cup, there were two almost conflicting statements, from the secretary of the CAF, and Sepp Blatter. The CAF statement was to re-state the Federations determination to keep the tournament every two years, and to play it in January. The claim of the CAF is that a June or July date would be a problem because this is too hot in may countries, and it is the rainy season across the central belt of the continent. Only right down in the South is the weather supposedly suitable, (the 2010 World Cup, will of course be played in the South African winter).

There are some problems with this claim – although it is clearly cooler in some countries than others in January, this does not mean the sport is limited to this period of time. The African club competitions run on an calendar year system, with matches from February to November, while this season the federation has scheduled four rounds of world cup qualifying for June – just the time said to be too hot or too wet.

The CAF statement concluded that the biennial, January tournament will continue unchanged at least until 2014. The next edition, though – in Angola will be held two weeks earlier, from January 10-31. Not that this makes a difference to the European clubs, as the main suppliers of players – France, England, Spain, Portugal all play through this period – only Germany which restarts its top division in the first week of February would be helped by the decision.

On the other hand, Sepp Blatter stated that by 2016, this tournament must change to playing in June and July, in line with the other continental competitions. Of course, Blatter did not mention that the next Asian tournament will probably be played late in the year, around November and December to fit the weather for Qatar. If the Qatar tournament was to be played in June or July, then temperatures could exceed 40 degrees centigrade during the matches. The 2000 tournament in the Lebanon was played in October, while 1996 it was December in UAE

Egypt Make Case for their Defence

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Public transport in Ghana is only recommended for those of a quiet disposition and even temper. There are two main means of inter-city transport, the buses or the tro-tros. A bus is an easy option, tickets are on sale in advance, with a timetable (even though it is likely to be ignored). The tro-tro is the popular method of transit though. These consist of mini-buses which can squeeze in 22 passengers. They run without a timetable – you just go to the station and take a seat on the one heading to your destination. The bus simple starts when it is full, which when travelling between the two main cities, is never going to be a long wait.

This does not actually describe the chaos one has to navigate to get through the tro-tro station. At the entrance, you are met by various touts trying either to divert your attention to some other (more expensive and unlicensed) form of transport, or to direct you to the correct bus, in return for a small tip. You then get on a half full bus, which slowly becomes fuller and more cramped. Outside, hawkers are selling everything you may need for the trip from a plastic bag of water, to ladies underwear, all carrying their wares in baskets on their heads. The noise was intense and those near the windows acted as middlemen, passing coins and goods through. For the record, the only thing I bought was water.

The road from Accra to Kumasi is not a poor road at all, and is all properly surfaced except a couple where works were in progress. As you go away from town, all you can see of the villages tends to be a number of commercial properties to the road, residences could be spotted through the trees but the red dirt tracks that led to them were not always visible. It did not appear that much if any of the land was under cultivation, and livestock was also absent from my view. This appeared to change in the last 100 km, as we moved into the Ashanti province. Here the villages appeared bigger and great red tracts of earth marked the roads up to the housing. Eventually after five hours in the bus we arrived at the busy feeling city of Kumasi. Without the sea breezes enjoyed by Accra, it felt a much hotter town. With the various members of our party at odds about our plans, and in which order to do them in, I did not get a good look around the town, but a simple walk down one busy street. Still, I am due to return here later, so next time I may get a look around.

At the stadium, I talked to someone who had come up on the bus from Accra. Far from running to the timetable, it actually left about two hours late – and my friend had taken the official advice to arrive a full 60 minutes before scheduled departure. He came close to missing the start of the matches in Kumasi.

The stadium is based on a single tier built up quite high over around half the pitch’s circumference, and then dropping lower for the curve behind the south goal. This has the scoreboard positioned above it. A very modern stand runs down one length of the ground, and this is where I was watching from. The capacity is given as 20,000 and I would say it was well over half full for the game. The popular areas are behind the goal and these were closed to full. The more expensive seats along the side did not appear to have much over 50% take up. Again, the stands come down low to the running track level, and although a clear plastic is used for the fencing, you need to be at least a dozen rows back to secure a good view. Anyone missing out can console themselves with the news that overuse of fencing, both wire and plastic means that many of the VIP seats in the stand, and certainly the corners of the press box also do not enjoy good views.

Egypt picked a very domestic team, with eight players in the local leagues, joined only by Zidan (Hamburg), Shawky (Middlesbrough) and Gomaa (Al-Siliya in Qatar). Cameroon’s squad was international, or to be accurate European in its base. Geremi (Newcastle) and Andre Bikey (Reading). Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona led the line, while Idris Kameni, the keeper is with cross city rivals Espanyol. The French and German Leagues provide 3 players each, and Rigobert Song now plays for Galatasaray.

The Hamburg forward Mohamed Zidan, playing just behind the front two appeared to be the most dangerous player in the early stages, failing the find a shot when in space in the second minute. In the 12th minute he broke right and fired the ball across the face of the goal. Everyone missed this, but Abdel Moteleb was beyond the far post, and his attempt to cross it back in was met by a hand. Moteleb himself took the penalty, stopping a pace short of the spot on his first attempt, which the referee rightly deemed as unacceptable, and then thundering in a second attempt. Three minutes later Zidan again was on the ball, this time scoring to double the lead. Despite playing an attacking variant of 4-5-1 where the midfielders play a V with Stephane Mbia at the base, and the two wingers, both pushed up in support of the Eto’o. Cameroon failed to make any impression on the Egyptian defence in the first half. A defence that one felt looked somewhat more secure than it had done at the start of Egypt’s run to win the title two years ago. Egypt played with three centre halves, a four man midfield, and Zidan, as I have already mentioned behind the front two. Cameroon’s failure in trying to gain the initiative in midfield led to them replacing Jean Makoun by Benfica’s Augustin Binya eight minutes before the break. Having taken the early double lead, Egypt did not manage to create many more chances in the first half, but had little trouble stifling any creativity from Cameroon. The without warning, in the second minute of injury time, Zidan struck again and the holders were 3-0 up.

Cameroon tried a further double substitution at half time to try and revamp their midfield. On came Achille Emana of Toulouse and Arsenal youngster Alexandre Song. This brought a quick return with the ball finally being delivered to the wing. Gerermi overlapping on the right and providing the cross for Eto’o to score in the 50th minute. Although after this, the crowd’s preference for Cameroon became audible whenever they attacked, (and most of the attacks were coming through Geremi on the right wing), Egypt did not appear to be greatly troubled, still they took off Zakry Mansour from the attack and star player Zidan and took a more defensive stance.

Cameroon’s weakness is that Eto’o is a world class player, but he is also the team’s weakness in so far as they try to play everything through him, rather than using the wings and letting him enter the fray at the most important time. Egypt’s strength by comparison is their ability to let players have their freedom on the ball. And so in the 80th minute, Moteleb took a shot from 30 yards, surprising everyone and increasing Egypt’s lead to 4-1. After annoying the crowd by denying several Cameroon appeals for penalties, the referee finally relented, even though the offence was still not clear from the sidelines to allow Eto’o to shoot from the spot and bring the score to 4-2 during injury time

The second game is to be an African affair. Sudan are the only team to use local players only in their team, and indeed only two clubs are involved. League champions Al-Hilal provide seven of the eleven, while runners-up (and cup winners) Al-Merrikh provide the rest. Zambia have a single player, Joseph Mulenga of Strasbourg playing in Europe. Three of the starting line up play in Zambia, and another three in Angola (all for Primerio de Agosta). The remaining quartet play in the South African League. The crowd did thin out during the break between games, but I would say that well over half stayed in place. Zambia attacked from the off, and were rewarded quickly with James Chamanga opening the scoring in the second minute. Chamanga threatened again as Zambia took most of the opening stages, but a shot from Bader Galag flashed across the goal in the 12 minute, striking the far post and warning that Sudan were not to be taken too lightly. As the half moved on, we saw more signs that the Sudanese were not here just to make up numbers, while the Zambian were attacking less, and were being pushed onto the back foot. Faisal Agab shot narrowly wide on the half hour mark, as Zambia struggled to contain Sudan. At least any embarrassment suffered by the team may not be so easily noticed at home. Zambia, along with Nigeria were the most prominent of a number of countries affected by a big increase in the cost of TV rights for this tournament, the Zambians were reportedly asked US$1.5 million for coverage, ten times what they expected to pay. The result is that the matches can only be seen by those with satellite TV.

The second half started with Sudan still trying to break down the Zambian defence, but they fell again to an early attack – a little confusion in defence and the ball is shifted towards the post when Mulenga heads in the second goal, they added a third in the 59th minute, putting the result beyond doubt, this time through Felix Katonga. There was a further drift in the crowd as the chance of a shock receded, but there was no time during the paid of games when the stadium did not echo with the sounds of drums and trumpets, while the love of the underdog was shown by a roar whenever Sudan attacked.

So it finishes with the crowd appreciating the brave try by Sudan, but it has to be said they are just not good enough. Zambia have got the start they wanted, but the group still lies with Egpyt and Cameroon

Welcome to Accra

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Why does one travel? Is it because we reject the ideas of an ordered world and seek something more chaotic, something less within our own control?

There may be long queues at Gatwick, but the flight to Accra is uneventful. Apart from an aircraft with the word Ghana painted on the side, but the logo of Icelandair painted on the tail and wing fins, and that they have to play the film soundtrack on the public address (no headphones), Ghana International is not really any different to any other airline.

Even Accra airport will not immediately stick in the mind – we passed through customs quickly, and then waited for our luggage. We wanted to check a reservation with an internal airline, which meant a trip from the International to the Domestic terminal and back. We picked up two unwanted guides, who were less than satisfied when we only reluctantly offered a 5 Cedi (£2.50) tip. They were trying to guide us to their choice of taxi, when our hotel had sent a car to pick us up. Or at least we thought they had. When we found the hotel driver, he was holding up the name of another passenger, coming in on another airline. We high-jacked him anyway and got down to the hotel, finding out that he was due to take the other passenger first and then pick us later, as the hotel had a two hour error in the time they were expecting our flight to arrive.

On of the complaints we had heard in advance was that there was a shortage of hotels in the city, leading to a big hike in room rates. To be honest, my hotel would not have deserved the two star rating, and US$66 per night that it normally charged – even if it had been placed in the centre of one of Europe’s more expensive cities. At US$90 during the tournament, it was a real rip off – and yet it was doing better than most.

We picked up the details of the opening game at the airport, the number of visible staff were less than one might expect – but after we had waited ten minutes for our luggage, we heard a cheer from various offices around the areas perimeter – Junior Agogo had won a dubious penalty for the hosts, and they had gone one up. This did not last, but a late goal by Muntari restored the home advantage allowing them to start with a win. The result, when we reached the city centre was a fever pitch of celebration. Cars and bands of supporters would make their way, creating as much noise as possible. Friends coming off a later flight were staying in another part of town, and our taxi to meet them managed to co-incidentally arrive at exactly same time. A beer was had in the hotel, and then a walk up and down the local drag, past a number of other bars, and nightclubs. As we walked along the road, a few of the locals greeted us, while one young girl attached herself rather strongly to me. Not only did she follow us right back to the hotel, but suddenly as we sat down in the bar, more young ladies appeared from nowhere. My friend from West Bromwich immediately took fright and ran off to his room. Once it was clear there was no profits to be made from our party, our friends did disappear, but we did get more offers while we tried to negotiate the taxi back to our own hotel.
It took the full morning of the following day to sort out my accreditation. Apparently in order to reduce the chaos that the system had suffered from on the first couple of days, it was necessary to send everyone from the accreditation centre to a hotel in a different part of the city, and then back again before a pass could be issued. The pass only allows one to get to the stadium media centre to apply for the daily match ticket!

Completely full to see the hosts and the opening ceremony, only a few hundred had ventured out for Namibia v Morocco, allowing a clear view of the two tiers of seats in this modern stadium, refurbished specially for the tournament. Although bright and sunny, the Ohene Djan Stadium lies only a short distance from the shore, and a cooling breeze meant that we did not feel the full force of the mid afternoon temperatures. The two ovals of seats with large curves behind the goals gives a very spacious feel to the stadium, and even though there is no track, the lower seats at the ends will provide poor views of the action. Not surprisingly, these seats were not in use in this low crowd. AN unusual feature is the holes, apparently cut out of the upper tier to allow the four tall floodlight pylons to rise from anchor points below the lower tiers. The uneven size of the holes convinces one that they were the quick answer to an unplanned problem for the architect. Only one side of the ground has any cover, – a high cantilever stand in steel. There is a slightly curious net curtain affair below this, which I would guess is provided to try and persuade birds from nesting among the steel beams, or at least if they do, to protect the seats below from the evidence. In contrast to the bright colours of the stand, the pitch was a very uneven mixtures of light greens and browns that did nothing to hide and uneven bounce.

Morocco started in 4-4-2 formation, although they showed a degree of flexibility up front – only Bordeaux’s Maroane Chamakh was committed full to the attack, his partner could be either Youssef Hadji (Nancy) or Soufienne Alloudi (Al-Ain, UAE), with the other moving out to the right wing. Four of the Moroccan squad play in the French League, two in UAE, the goalkeeper is local with Raja Casablanca, while the Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Portuguese leagues are represented. Youssef Safri of Southampton is the only man on the pitch that plays in England. The Namibians on the other had rely mainly on their own league, which provides four players, and the South African, which adds another four – Oliver Risser is unattached leaving only Norman Jacobs (Bryne, Norway) and Collin Benjamin (SV Hamburg) playing in Europe. They adopted a 4-1-4-1 formation which soon proved inefficient at holding back some quick Moroccan attacks.

In the second minute, Chamakh raced through the defence and although his shot hit the post, he reacted quickest and passed square to give Alloudi a tap in. Alloudi was on hand in the fifth minute, just beating the goalkeeper to the ball and doubling the lead. To their credit, Namibia did not collapse completely after this double set back, and even gained a little of the ball – still it was against the run of play when Brain Brendall cut in the right wing and unleashed an unstoppable shot to bring them back in the game at 2-1. This did not last long though – five minutes later Tarek Sektioui, crossed from the left wing, and Alloudi was unmarked to head in at the far post.

The noise in the ground was provided not by supporters of either side, but by a group of about 200 home supporters, almost in a uniform of bright yellow shirts, a mixture of brass band, and dancing provided the colour. The only Moroccan supporters I could see were a small number who ran back and forth with a giant flag whenever they scored, while less than 100 from Namibia were trying not to look dispirited in the far corner. They had little reason for hope, as every Morocco attack seemed like a goal opportunity. In the 38th minute, the Nantes full back overlapped and was fouled (but only very gently) and giving Sektioui the right to increase the score to 4-1 from the penalty spot.

The second half started a little scrappily with the injury ‘milk float’ twice called into action. Alloudi being the victim of Namibia’s indiscretions. Namibia brought on Abraham Shatimuene at half time, allowing them to re-organise the defence (without any obvious effect, other than meaning the Angolan league was now represented). For Morocco, Youusef Mikhtari who now plays for Al-Rayan in Qatar replaced the injured Alloudi on the hour mark. The pattern continued with Namibia defending somewhat desperately, and building up a collection of yellow cards, Morocco were dominating the play, but not actually producing many credible chances. Set pieces seemed to be the best opportunity, and this was proved in the 73rd minute when a corner was delivered deep to newly arrived substitute Monsef Zerka (who had replaced his Nancy team mate, Youssef Hadji) to head in number 5. Both sides pushed forward in the last fifteen minutes, but the match had one out of steam. Morocco settling for this very comfortable start, and knowing that neither of their other games is likely to be this easy.

Africa Make its Choices

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Africa Makes its Choices.

The lists are in, and 388 players are making their way to Ghana for the African Cup of Nations which starts next Sunday. The biennial event continues to annoy the coaches of many a European team, as they lose their players for a month – but it is these players that the fans and the world’s media will be filling the stadiums to see.

TV viewers will be able to see the matches from England, so long as they have some type of cable/satellite/digital set. The matches are being shown on Eurosport, and on the BBCi services, with highlights programmes on BBC3. I do not know if I would want to watch two back to back matches every night on TV, but if I was not in Africa, I may well have my set tuned for those highlights at 7pm every night.

No doubt all the major clubs will have their scouts in position as well, but they are not interested in the stars of the Premiership. Slightly more than a third of the players in these championships still ply their trade with African clubs, and many know this is the place to get noticed and open up for the dream move to Europe. There are 112 players, out of the 368 total that play for ‘home country clubs’, with another 30 playing within Africa, most notably in South Africa, where 9 Namibians, 5 Zambians and one player from Benin are playing. Most of the rest play in Europe, with the French supplying 57 of the players, and England proving 41. There are also a handful of players who have with teams in Arab states around the gulf, and one each playing in the USA and Mexico.

Sudan is the only country that only uses players from within their local league. Indeed they select from only two clubs, with 12 players from local league champions Al Hilal, and the other 11 from Al Merreikh – who finished as runners-up in the league and beat their rivals in the domestic cup final. Sudan are considered to be one of the weakest teams in the competition. This may be unfair as they finished ahead of 2004 champions Tunisia in qualifying. Should Sudan achieve anything this year, then several of their players will be closely watched. Sudan also provides a single player, Elijah Tana of Al Merreikh to another squad, in this case Zambia.

At the other end of the chain, Nigeria is the only country that selects its squad entirely from outside its own borders – seven Premiership players make this the most Anglo-centric of the squads – Yobo and Aiyegbeni of Everton, Utaka and Kanu of Portsmouth, Obi from Chelsea, Martins from Newcastle and Etuhu from Sundaerland are joined by Shittu (Watford) and Olofinjana (Wolves). The Nigerian team is spread across the UEFA nations, with four in France, but also players in Israel, Romania and Bulgaria. The only player representing the Nigerian League in the tournament will be the Benin goalkeeper, Chitou Rachad. Naturally, the Nigerians are expected to be among the favourites.

The Benin squad is also widely spread, with just one playing in England – Romauld Bocco who is a defender with Accrington Stanley. Their squad also includes a player from Serie D club Casale in Italy, and the player coach, Alain Gaspoz from Bagnes in the Swiss 2nd Amateur Liga (which is the fifth level of football there). Recent winners Egypt and Tunisia, along with South Africa are all looking the their own leagues to make an impact. The Egyptians have chosen 17 local players, the South Africans have 15 and the Tunisian have 12. Egypt also play Mohamed Shawky from Middlesbrough, Tunisia play Rahdi Jaidi and Mehdi Nafti from Birmingham City, while South Africa use Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena of Blackburn – but not his team mate Benni McCarthy. The South African team are gearing up for their home world cup, more than this tournament, and have not impressed in recent African cups anyway. Egypt and Tunisia, having both won at home, need to show their mettle south of the Sahara, and their players have experience of this in the African club competitions.

The Ivory Coast and Senegal – both of whom will be listed with the favourites use seven players from England each. The Ivorians include Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure of Arsenal, Abdoulaye Meita of Bolton, Emerse Fae of Reading, Didier Zakora of Spurs, plus Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou of Chelsea. There are also six from the French league and four from the Bundesliga in a squad whose only local player is a goalkeeper. Senegal’s local player in Lamine Diatta, only listed as such because he is currently without a club. Reading’s Ibrahima Sonko is hoping to make his international debut in the competition, while also included are Habib Beye and Abdoulaye Faye (Newcastle), Papa Bouba Diop (Portsmouth), El Hadji Diouf (Bolton) and two Kamaras – Diomansy of Fulham and Henri of West Ham.

Home advantage is important in Africa, and I expect the hosts – who have won the tournament four times before (twice at home) to do well. They have selected Birmingham goalkeeper Richard Kingson, along with John Pantsil (West Ham), Michael Essian (Chelsea), Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth) and Junior Agogo of Nottingham Forest. The Ghanian squad also includes three locals, and what at first glance appears to be the two travelling the furthest for the tournament, Alhassan Illiasu and Baffour Gyan – both of FC Saturn. This turns out not to be from the ringed planet, but from Oblast, somewhere near the Moscow ring-road. Hence the longest travelling player for the tournament is probably Bouna Coundoul, the Senegalese goalkeeper who also keeps for Colorado Rapids in the USA, although Alain Nkong a midfield with Mexican side Atlante, and part of the Cameroon squad runs him close.

Cameroon are the last of the sides to mention who I think have a chance of winning, and they will depend a lot on star forwards such as Barcelona; Samuel Eto’o and Jaseph Desire Job, well known in England, but now playing for Nice. Cameroon can field Andrew Bikey of Reading, Geremi of Newcastle, or Alexandre Song of Arsenal. A second player listed as from Arsenal is Paul Essola, but as that is Arsenal Kiev, the London club do not lose another. Cameroon also have a player at FC Saturn, and just the one in the local league, not unsurprisingly a goalkeeper, Javier Mbarga.

Frederic Kanoute, now with Sevilla is the most well player in the Mali squad – and he is confident enough that he is going to turn up for the tournament. (He has retired from internationals at least once in the past, returning when the team qualified for a tournament, but did play his part in qualifying this time, including the away goal in Togo that put Mali through, and Togo out of the competition). The English representatives in this side are Momo Sissoko of Liverpool and Stoke’s Mamady Sibide. The Mali squad has six players in the French league, and a second player Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid in La Liga but it also features players who play in Morocco and Algeria.

The final two players travelling to Ghana from England are safri Youssef of Coventry and Morocco, and Rui Marques of Leeds United and Angola. The Moroccan squad features four players from local leagues, and six from France, but otherwise has very diverse call-ups. The Angolans will depend a lot on the Portuguese league, seevn of the 13 players travelling from Portugal will play for Angola. Apart from Sudan, the Englisg league is not represented by Namibia, Zamabia and Guinea – both Namibia (9) and Zambia (10) have a high concentration of local players in the squad, as well as the large numbers based in South Africa. Guinea will depend a lot on the French league, and also have a big contingent playing in Turkey.

    The Groups.

Group A will feature the hosts Ghana, along with Guinea, Morocco and Namibia. With home advantage, Ghana are big favourites to take this group with most eyes on the match between Guinea and Morocco to see who joins them in the next round. Few people rate Namibia. Ghana will need to hit the ground running though, as if they lose points in the opening game against Guinea, theire position will be immediately under threat.

Group B features Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali and Benin. Nigeria will play the Ivory Coast in the first game, and the winner will be favourite to win the group. Personally, I do not see either of the others as strong enough to qualify.

Group C. Egypt, Cameroon, Zambia and Sudan. Again the biggest match, Egypt for Cameroon comes first. This may not be the end of the group though, as the Zambian team may well be the dark horse of the tournament, and could go through at the expense of the current holders.

Group D features Tunisa, Senegal, South Africa and Angola – and I feel that both Tunisia and Senegal who meet up first should qualify.

My pick for the semi-finals are Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal. As I have chosen one from each group, I am also picking these as group winners. I have not selected any north African sides for the last four, although I expect Tunisa and Morocco to reach the knock out stage. All these four are capable of winning the tournament, and I would not like to pick. I will put up one thought for consideration, home advantage is important in Africa – Egypt and Tunisia won the last two tournaments on home turf, and Ghana have won the tournament four times in the past – twice as hosts.