If you have never witnessed an African Cup of Nations tournament, then you have never witnessed professional football at its purest. Football takes place in spite of everything else. In spite of the disorganisation of national FAs, poor infrastructure, lack of funding, and sometimes war (Libya were due to host 2013’s tournament, but had to swap with South Africa due to unrest). The quality can veer between eye-poppingly good and atrocious, often one immediately following the other.
This weekend sees a huge range of international football qualifiers being played all over the globe, but the most interesting series of games takes place in Africa. Normally the ACN takes place every two years, but until recently this meant it took place six months before the World Cup. This was something the organisers felt took away from the spectacle of the ACN and often saw nations hastily shoehorning in a new manager for the World Cup after an ACN failure (Sven Goran Ericsson managed Ivory Coast for three months up to the World Cup in 2010). The solution was add an extra tournament in January 2013 and then every two years after that.
Because of the shuffle, we are basically having an extra tournament with no time for a proper qualifying tournament (can you imagine European nations having that foisted on them?). Instead we are given a few rounds of two-legged knock outs. Not the fairest way of qualifying, but certainly exciting. We have already seen favourites Egypt getting dumped out by Central African Republic 4-3 on aggregate.
Surely the standout match from last weekend’s round of games was Ivory Coast v Senegal, with The Elephants (Ivory Coast) beating The Lions of Teranga (Sengeal) 4-2. It seems crazy that one of these two West African giants will not be at the tournament proper. Ivory Coast feature some stellar players, including the Toure brothers from Man City, Gervinho from Arsenal, and of course the mighty Didier Drogba. Senegal are not the force they were 10 years ago, but Newcastle fans know all about strikers Cisse and Ba and their squad features players from leagues in France, Germany, and Portugal.
There are many issues with African football (though what fan doesn’t have a problem with his/her national FA?). I would like to see more African managers given a shot, and less reliance put on past-it European coaches. Of the 30 teams playing this weekend, at least 10 of them are managed by Europeans. It’s fair enough when this gets you a title, like Herve Reynard with Zambia last year, but if names such as Bobby Williamson (Uganda) or Paul Put (Burkina Faso) are well known to you, then I salute your superior footballing knowledge.
So, fellow football fan, if during the next international break (Oct 12th) you are casting about, wondering why there’s no Premier League or La Liga and you can’t face Team USA or England underachieve once again, I invite you, no I urge you to check out Ivory Coast v Senegal (or any ACN game really) and watch two sides give everything, while entire nations huddle around whatever TV or radio they can get near, and witness the last bastion of pure footballing joy.