How difficult can it really be for the officials of a football association to keep accurate statistics, as well as master the eligibility rules, of players entitled to feature for their countries in crucial international matches?
One would assume it does not take the genius of Albert Einstein to carry out basic record-keeping duties.
But the recurring drama of administrative ineptitude, leading to the cancellation of several World Cup qualifying results across Africa, tempts me to think, mischievously I might add, that it must be a lot harder than I previously thought.
Hours before last Thursday’s announcement that Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks had unexpectedly lost its spot, to Tunisia, in the 10-team World Cup play-offs, taking place between October and November, I’d been informally warned beforehand that the hammer was about to fall.
“It is very sad that a team that worked hard and are on the verge of going to the World Cup will be losing their chance to qualify because an ineligible player was used,” a FIFA official told me at a closed gathering in Zurich.
“But the rules are the rules and they must be applied, even if they are going to cause unhappiness to a lot of people,” he said.
The team from the tiny island nation, which made an impressive debut at the last Africa Cup of Nations finals in South Africa, lost a golden chance to earn passage to Brazil because Fernando Varela, who was yet to complete a four-match suspension, played in their final group game against Tunisia.
Varela got his red card in a previous group game against Equatorial Guinea, a country that, ironically, was sanctioned by FIFA for using an ineligible player, Emilio Nsue Lopez, in the two group games played against, yes you got it, Cape Verde.
Not paying rapt attention to the FIFA Disciplinary Code, which states that “An expulsion automatically incurs suspension from the subsequent match, even if imposed in a match that is later abandoned, annulled and/or forfeited”, Cape Verde decided to use Varela, which handed Tunisia the unexpected lifeline into the play-offs.
Unfortunately for Cape Verde, they are not as lucky as Ethiopia, which miraculously made the World Cup play-offs despite a three-point deduction of their own, when they used Minyahil Teshome Beyene, who was not qualified to feature in their June 8 group qualifier against Botswana.
This led to Ethiopia’s 2-1 win being converted to a 0-3 defeat, besides getting a $6,300 fine, the exact punishment handed out to Cape Verde.
Ethiopia managed to recover from their self-inflicted injury by earning a home victory over South Africa and a vital away win over the Central African Republic, as their close opponents dropped points.
Besides Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia, four other countries – Togo, Gabon, Sudan and Burkina Faso – had points docked from their World Cup qualifying campaigns, for the very same reason.
Charley Moussono, at the centre of Gabon’s World Cup qualifying troubles last year, played for Cameroon at the 2006 Beach World Cup.
That Moussono illegally played in all four of Gabon’s 2012 Africa Cup of Nations matches – which nullifies their entire record at that tournament – is a fact that seems not to bother the rule keepers of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), which has maintained its silence on this clear violation and in a near-identical case, involving Burkina Faso’s Herve Zengue.
Considering the recriminations that follow a loss when no administrative bungling has occurred, the righteous outrage that should accompany a defeat, caused solely by it, ought to result in the heads of some administrative bigwigs rolling.
To the best of my knowledge, not a single relevant national association or federation official, in all the countries that have been involved in this unsavoury mess, has been given the sack or publicly reprimanded for mind boggling levels of incompetence.
When Sahilu Gebremariam, the president of the Ethiopian Football Federation, stated that the inability of his officials to do a basic job, in their case, was “a management blunder”, he said nothing beyond the obvious.
This season of comedic bungling by bureaucrats, which I hope will not continue in the final round of qualifiers – as it will only provide further ammunition to those who have never wished African football well – goes to the very root of why the continent is not progressing, as it ought.
“It is really unbelievable to see the kind of administrative mistakes that are being made by so many African countries in the World Cup qualifying series,” said a rather bemused but very highly placed FIFA official, in an off-the-record conversation.
“I just cannot understand how so many national associations can fail to keep basic records, which has forced us to intervene in the way that we have. These mistakes ought not to be happening.”
But they are happening and will, quite sadly, continue to happen until the comment made by Joseph-Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper, begins to sink into the heads of those who run the game across the continent.
“The real difference is really made in the offices, by the people responsible for managing a country’s football… You must have administrators that can think ahead of the time.”
But if they can’t deal with the task of keeping basic records, thinking ‘ahead of the time’ is a rather tall, complicated order, isn’t it?
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at email@example.com
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.