The Africa Cup of Nations is not some fly-by-night, irrelevant competition. It is the continent’s equivalent of the European Championship finals, the Copa America, the Gold Cup or the Asian Cup.
Determining the regional champion every couple of years, it is Africa’s most prestigious tournament. And by all accounts (I confess to have never attended it) the most colourful football jamboree on the planet after the World Cup.
Yet for all its efforts to portray its flagship event in the best possible light, once again its reputation has been sullied by a series of unsavoury incidents on and off the pitch instead of being remembered for some of the technically wonderful football on display.
Sepp Blatter and Issa Hayatou, who not too many years ago were in opposing election camps but now seem to be bosom buddies, may have put on a sabre-rattling unified front by denouncing the western media for overblowing criticism of fans who threw rocks, stones and broken glass and succeeded in holding up a semifinal for 30 minutes. But anyone who witnessed, whether in person or on television, those unforgiveable scenes perpetrated by “supporters” of the host nation cannot fail to have been appalled.
Sometimes, putting the western press in its place for going over the top and failing to see the bigger picture is justified. Not this time.
This time, the FIFA president and his most important African ally (we are in another election year, don’t forget) delivered an arrow firmly at the messenger rather than the perpetrator.
Let’s examine the facts. Equatorial Guinea, who had been drafted in at the last minute to replace Morocco, had exceeded all expectations by reaching the semi-finals, albeit courtesy of a dreadful refereeing decision in the quarter-finals against Tunisia that led to the official in question being banned for six months after awarding a more-than-dubious stoppage-time penalty at the end of normal time.
One might have felt that, given the good fortune enjoyed by their team (allied, to be fair, with tremendous spirit), the home fans would have reacted with good grace when they eventually came up against superior opponents. Instead they brought shame and disgrace on the competition.
Quietly rightly, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) sanctioned them for the disgraceful scenes that resulted in 36 injuries but how much was the hand of Hayatou involved in the delivery of a mere $100,000 fine to a country awash with oil revenues?
Contrast that with the $1 million fine, plus a ban for the next two editions of the tournament, meted out to Morocco who had already been stripped of competing this year for refusing to host the event out of fear of the Ebola virus spreading.
Critics understandably accuse the Moroccans, who had asked for a postponement, of over-reacting to the point of paranoia. They point out, quite rightly, that Morocco freely allowed Guinea, one of the countries most affected by Ebola, to play qualifying games in their country without any mention of Ebola. Just as puzzling is the fact that Morocco were prepared to stage the Club World Cup.
Yet the question still has to be asked whether CAF would have delivered such a draconian penalty had everything gone smoothly in Equatorial Guinea instead of the tournament being blighted by poor stewarding, lack of sufficient security, one ridiculous drawing of lots to determined who advanced from the group stage and, on the pitch, suspect officiating and far too much gamesmanship.
To use the excuse that Equatorial Guinea only had a couple of months to prepare simply does not wash. Don’t forget that they had initially been thrown out of qualification in the first round way back in May 2014 for fielding an ineligible player. Some might argue they only got in through the back door.
Not surprisingly the host nation issued an unequivocal pledge of support and thanks to Hayatou for somehow managing to engineer a rescue package after Morocco withdrew. As a quid pro quo, maybe he felt he owed Equatorial Guinea something in return. Applying a mere $100,000 fine for wrecking a highly anticipated semi-final (some Ghanians said it was a miracle no-one was killed) could explain that. Morocco, by contrast, felt the full force of Hayatou’s wrath.
The substitute hosts even got off more lightly than the Tunisians who had dared to protest about alleged bias from within Hayatou’s confederation. For doing so, their federation’s president, Wadie Jary, was banned from all CAF activities after he failed to apologise for comments deemed to be unethical.
So sensitively did the CAF heirarchy take criticism of its leader that its executive committee collectively expressed its support for Hayatou with a unanimous vote of confidence denouncing “the strategy of using the CAF president as a scapegoat by those who seek by all means to acquire a good conscience for themselves.”
What about CAF’s own conscience? They were clearly not prepared to be held to ransom by Morocco’s demands to have the event postponed until next year. Fair enough. But was it fair to point almost all the fingers quite so strongly in their direction?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at recent events in Equatorial Guinea. After all, this was Africa where football so often doesn’t go according to plan. That unpredictability is part of African football’s charm (when it doesn’t result in violence) and can have a wonderfully uplifting and joyful effect. Equally, it can serve only to emphasise how much work, administratively, still needs to be done.
This week’s shocking events in Egypt are yet another sobering reminder of how the game – in a Continent where it is so passionately followed – can so suddenly and tragically spiral out of control.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org