Duels on the Nile
A report from Sudan on the second championship for Africans playing their football at home
As it flows through Khartoum, the Nile is liquid tranquillity. Towering above the river near the mystical point where the blue and white streams converge is the Burj Al-Fateh complex. Here the Confederation of African Football (CAF) fashioned its temporary administrative base in a warren of glass fronted booths. An adjacent 20-storey five-star hotel provided sleeping accommodation for the couple of dozen CAF executives and minions flown down from headquarters in Cairo. The plush if soulless interior of the Libyan-financed buildings provides a jarring contrast to the tawdry venue for the final of the second African Nations Championship (not to be confused with the African Cup of Nations). The CHAN, as it's known, is restricted to those who play their league football in their country of origin.
The Al Merreikh stadium over the river in Omdurman is home to one of Africa's most venerable clubs. Al Merreikh have won the Sudanese league title 17 times since the club was founded in 1927, but that success hasn't been redirected into the facilities. An anaemic row of lights throws a depressing glare on the pallid green walls leading from the main reception and trophy store to the press-conference room. At the end of the corridor, a grubby door guards the toilets. Inside water seeps out from cubicles in need of a thorough bleaching. There are no hand basins; taps set a couple of feet above a brick trough suffice.
This is the dreary, reeking reality of the latter stages of what CAF promotes as one of its most important international football tournaments. Just a few hours before Tunisia outclassed Angola in the final, the glitterati pumped out panegyrics about the event. "We've had lots of positive feedback on the tournament," said Mutasim Gafaar, the president of the Sudan Football Association. "It's been a good showcase for Sudan to host other continental competitions. I hope everyone has seen how developed Sudan is from an economic point of view."
The Fifa president Sepp Blatter was equally pleased. "Africa has shown that it can organise a World Cup in 2010, a Confederations Cup in 2009," he said. "The African Nations Championship shows that the infrastructure can be developed for bigger things."
Their hubris was exposed at the subsequent double-header. Despite free entry, the 42,000 capacity stadium was barely half full for Sudan's 1-0 win over Algeria in the third-place play-off. It wouldn't have been too much of a problem to stretch out during the final either. The very evident gaps on the terraces ought to serve as a warning to the top brass to avoid premature tub-thumping, but bigwigs at football tournaments in Africa appear to see it as their duty to brandish zeitgeist concepts such as nation building and repositioning. Angola spent a couple of billion dollars constructing roads, arenas and airports for the 2010 African Cup of Nations. It was aesthetically impressive but some cash should have been directed into improving access to the stadiums and making the planes land on time (or, indeed, at all).
Visitors, like local supporters, want tangibles. With no glory up for grabs, the Sudanese snubbed the chance to watch an array of unheralded foreigners play in a final. Shorn of box office attractions like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien or Samuel Eto'o, there was no allure in a match involving Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana or Cameroon. Tunisia were a slick outfit and deserving winners, but even if you're a big name at Espérance, you're a no-hoper in Omdurman.
And it's here where the competition's existential conundrum lies. CAF's president Issa Hayatou was visited by the muse six years ago. She told him to use his heft to sire an international tournament open only to African players operating in their home countries. With no stars and the attendant frenzy, she whispered, unsung heroes would get their moment in the limelight.
The first championship two years ago in Côte d'Ivoire was contested between eight teams. The Democratic Republic of Congo took the trophy and the entire affair was deemed such a triumph that it was broadened to 16 teams in four groups for the 2011 event. "We extended the competition to allow all the regions that comprise CAF to be represented in the tournament," said Hayatou in an interview with the Radio France Internationale journalist Eric Mamruth. "Teams from some regions often don't make it into the last 16 of the African Cup of Nations so we wanted to make it a crucial component of the African Nations Championship to have all the continental regions included."
That structural munificence was repaid handsomely during the Sudan adventure. A few minutes after seeing South Africa snarled by a ribbon of Algerian passing patterns in the quarter-final, their coach Simon Ngomane was sanguine. "For the young boys to come to a tournament and reach the knockout stages, I can say it's an achievement," he said. "We're really proud that we came this far. The tournament will grow in leaps and bounds. This is the way Africa has to go. I say hats off to CAF for organising a tournament of this nature. It can only help football on the continent."
The Cameroon forward Clevis Tambe Ashu was positive even after enduring a quarter-final penalty shoot-out defeat to Angola. "The experience I've had here will motivate me to work harder for upcoming tournaments," said the 26 year old, who plays for the Coton Sport club in Garoua. "I'm disappointed to lose because I thought we could have gone on to lift the trophy. But I'm going home to work harder."
Such plaudits, on one level, vindicate Hayatou's concept. In charge of CAF for 23 years, his mandate ends in 2013 and he revealed to Mamruth that he's thinking of stepping down. "It's stressful and difficult," the 64-year-old Cameroonian admitted. "In two years I'll have been head of CAF for 25 years and, with what I did in Cameroon before, I'd have given 37 years of my life to football."
Mamruth's scoop became one of the main talking points at the conclusion of the championship. It could be a smokescreen to confound Hayatou's potential successors but if the genesis of the tournament does emerge as one of Hayatou's last commandments, then it would be a visionary legacy. There is, though, room for refinement. It's thought that in the past ten years around five hundred African players have left the continent to make their living abroad. Hayatou claims many of those who departed but who didn't make the grade have been drawn back to Africa because of the CHAN. "It's been created for those who stayed to get a chance to shine," he said. "Many have come back so they can get the chance to play in the competition."
But if, for example, Clevis Tambe Ashu stays true to his post-match words, is diligent at his club Coton Sport FC de Garou but decamps to Europe or elsewhere for a decent payday, he won't be at the next tournament. The flaws multiply. Is the competition about firing wanderlust or relaunching ambitions of those who didn't succeed in their first sortie from home? "The best thing for football in Africa is if the good players stay in their countries," Hayatou insisted. "But I accept there's a dilemma for football on the continent. The reality is that if a player is good, he will improve his levels abroad as well as his income. We can't stop him from leaving."
The solution is to improve the domestic championships in Africa. That's CAF's biggest mission, Mamruth believes. "Championships in Africa are usually of a poor standard," he said. "There are exceptions in South Africa and Tunisia. Algeria is starting to get a professional league but Egypt didn't even bother with the tournament."
The Egyptian absence was as salient as it was logical. The Pharaohs have won the last three African Cups of Nations with teams consisting mostly of home-based players. Over the past six years, Egypt, their squad drawn largely from Al-Ahly and Zamalek, have destroyed teams boasting some of Africa's most prestigious exports. For all the talk of quality encounters in Sudan, the Egyptians knew there was no kudos for them at the 2011 CHAN and there probably won't be any more glory when the show resurfaces in Libya in 2014.
The snub is ironic as Egypt seems to embody everything CAF seemingly craves, even if the national team, their preparations disrupted by the uprising that ousted the president Hosni Mubarak, might fail to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations. But the lodestar would not descend, diminishing the lustre of the 2011 CHAN. That ultimately is unlikely to impede the CHAN becoming a fixture in the African football calendar but it needs an unambiguous soul.
Within two years it has become all things to all men. "Mali regarded the competition as a way of preparing the Olympic team," said Mamruth. "Other teams saw it as a way to condition the squad for African Cup of Nations qualifiers. Hayatou's idea of a shop window for players is evident. But the tournament is also something of a laboratory for some countries who want to experiment with youngsters who might, with the experience, push on to the first XI."
There was no need to addle the chemistry of the Tunisia team. Eight of the players were together at the African Cup of Nations in Angola in January 2010. Their problem in the prelude to Sudan was scant preparation, having had their league closed down for a few weeks while social turmoil ravaged the country. Their success came less than six weeks after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been forced to stand down.
The squad only played one warm-up match, against Morocco, before heading to their base in Port Sudan for the group stages. "Tunisia had to prepare match by match," their coach Sami Trabelsi recalled in the glow of a 3-0 victory over Angola in the final. "We came here with tears of sadness in our eyes because of what had happened at home but we leave here with tears of joy."
Whether such emotion in itself validates the tournament is debatable, but in the city where the White and Blue Niles meet, the confluence of politics and football felt appropriate. Whatever happens to the CHAN in the future, in the creation myth of the new Tunisian state, the CHAN final in Omdurman will forever have been its baptism.