As Malawi and Algeria took the field on Monday, 11 January, in the second match of the 2010 African Cup of Nations tournament, the stadium in Luanda was almost completely empty, except for officials and security men. Why was no attempt made to entice Luanda’s crowds to matches not involving the home team? This match was being televised worldwide, and it should have been anticipated that since Angola was not playing, the stadium would be empty. What usually happens in such circumstances is that the gate fees are drastically reduced, or even foregone, so as to attract more spectators. But apparently Angola hasn’t heard of anything like that before. I hope South Africa is taking note of such things.
It was the same lack of imagination that made the Angolans decide to make Cabinda one of the venues at which matches would be played. It is all very well for it to have got the Chinese to build a spanking new stadium, costing millions of dollars, in Cabinda city, to make the political point to the population that not all the money obtained from the oil that gushes out of Cabinda, is commandeered by the apparatchiks in Luanda for their own purposes.
Or to demonstrate to the oil companies that if, as insurance, they might be tempted secretly to finance some of the residual elements of the Cabinda secessionist movements that are supposed to have ended their guerrilla campaigns, they should desist because the Luanda government now has full control of Cabinda. (Cabinda has suffered from insurgency for many years at the hands of the now “dormant” FLEC (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda)).
However, there is a proverb that there is always blood in the head of the tsetse-fly. So even if Luanda is truly in full control of the entire territory of Angola, precautions should have been taken to prevent the fatal attack on the Togolese footballers from taking place. You see, the Luanda government is composed of the MPLA, one of the most experienced guerrilla organisations in the world. It was formed in 1956 and I had the singular honour of spending nearly a month in the Soviet Union and China with its first secretary-general, Viriato da Cruz (now deceased) and another senior member, Mario de Andrade. Since then, the MPLA has undergone so many changes that it has now become quite unrecognisable to those who knew its earlier incarnation.
The experience it has undergone, I believe, should have alerted it to the possible presence of dissident members of FLEC in Cabinda, and to have mounted surveillance on them. When the Angolan government was told that the Togolese wanted to be based in Brazzaville prior to the tournament – itself an imbecilic decision predicated upon the fact that Congo-Brazzaville is French-speaking like Togo – the government should have put its foot down and said no. But even if it was going to accommodate the Togolese wish to stay in Brazzaville, it should never have agreed to their attempting to cross over from Brazzaville into Cabinda by bus. Who could have thought of such a silly thing? As it was, the Togolese players were entirely at the mercy of the assassins. Their only luck was that the assassins spent a lot of their ammunition shooting up the coach carrying the Togolese team’s baggage. Otherwise, it would have been “Goodbye, Togo team.” When Emmanuel Adebayor of Manchester City described how his friend had died in his arms, it was just too pathetic. The Togolese were completely justified in deciding to go home. Not only were they traumatised, but they needed to go home as a way of protesting at the amateurish way in which their security had been handled.
My biggest hope from the whole episode is that it will shake the African football authorities out of the complacency that has become their trademark. We’ve been seeing neglect and inefficiency in African football organisation going on from year to year without any sign that things will change for the better any time soon. In 2001 alone, many spectators were killed in Ghana, South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville. But anyone who thought that lessons would be learned and that there would be no more stadium deaths was under an illusion. Eight years later, in March 2009, deaths were still occurring at an African stadium. This time, it was in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. In the intervening period, Malawi, Zambia and the DRCongo had all seen tragic stadium incidents.
As could be expected, anti-African commentators have been predicting that just because a tragedy has hit footballers in Cabinda, similar loss of life or worse can be expected to happen during the World Cup in South Africa in June this year. But that is nonsense. Comparing South Africa to Angola, and especially Cabinda, is like comparing apples and oranges.
As Danny Jordaan, head of the organising committee of the World Cup 2010, retorted when the issue of the safety of teams for the World Cup was raised with him: “Why are people suddenly applying double standards? When there are terrorist attacks in Europe, do we hear about the 2012 Olympics being under threat? No. We cannot be called to account for the security arrangements of Angola, which is far removed from South Africa.”
Jordaan is right, of course. But the South African authorities should not rest on their oars. There are shadowy organisations in South Africa that would very much like to show the world that the “Rainbow Nation” idea that has impressed the world so much is not as good as it sounds, and that South Africa has been taken from the hands of “efficient whites” and given to “inefficient blacks”. Anyone who reads the blogs at some of the South African newspapers would be shocked at the amount of venom the white racists spew on their fellow citizens who happen to be black.
Organisations like the AWB must be penetrated by South African intelligence so that any wicked deeds they might want to plan can be nipped in the bud. It is a challenge which South African intelligence should meet squarely. It should not leave everything in the hands of the football authorities but cross-check all the security arrangements until they are satisfied that they are invulnerable. Of course, South Africa’s past performance in organising sports events is first-rate. I have attended international cricket matches in different locations ranging from Johannesburg, Midrand, Port Elizabeth, and Durban, and at each of these venues, the atmosphere was friendly and the arrangements superb.
But of course, football is different from cricket, especially as regards the colour of the spectators (cricket and rugby are largely patronised by whites, whereas football is a black man’s sport in South Africa). This is the time for heads to be banged together so that the expertise available to all sports organisers can be garnered together and placed at the service of the World Cup 2010. Which teams will I be supporting? I do want an African team to do well and given the state of the Ghana team at the moment, I suppose the Ivoirian team is the one that holds out the best hope for Africa. On occasion, the Nigerians can do well too – after all, they won the Olympic football tournament in Atlanta in 1996, beating the favourites, Argentina. They can thus spring a surprise in South Africa.
Why am I writing Ghana off? The administration of football in the country at the moment is in a mess. People talk of “political honchos” wielding too much influence over team selection. Even if this is not true, the perception that it might be so can permeate the football discourse of the country and seep into the players’ mindsets to sap their morale.
I make no secret of the fact that one of my favourite players, Sule Muntari, was inexplicably dropped from the team that went to Angola, and that the miserable performance Ghana put up against Côte d’Ivoire in particular made me miss Muntari very much. Maybe they want to “teach him a lesson” now for being unruly, so that by the time the World Cup comes round, he will have become malleable. The trouble with such a strategy is that he may well develop an incurable resentment against officials who have disgraced him publicly, and thus flop when they finally give him a chance to play for his country.
Football stars are prima donnas, and when you deal with them, you must be a diplomat, a psychologist as well as a mother to them, all at once. Doing this for a squad of 22 or more is a very big job and must only be entrusted to people with a proven record of man-management. I, for one, am very glad that I am not the coach of any football team! Good luck to all the African coaches.