Sunday, September 27, 2009

South Africa's marriage of (in)convenience…

With just nine months to the start of the 2010 World Cup, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the two people primarily responsible for ensuring South Africa hosts the football fraternity with aplomb are working from the same playbook.

But expecting Irvin “Iron Duke” Khoza and Danny Jordaan, the chairman and CEO of the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC), to sing from the same hymn sheet, when they can barely stand the sight of each other, is a pretty big ask…

With that thought in mind, as I - and other journalists at the World Trade Centre in Zurich - witnessed FIFA president Sepp Blatter announce the winning bid on Saturday, 15th May 2004, I wasted little time in asking, after the rapturous celebration of the joyous South African contingent in the hall had quietened, how Danny saw his post-bid future.

With his frayed relations with Khoza (the president of club side Orlando Pirates, who had been the chairman of the 2010 bid, while Jordaan was its CEO) known to African football insiders, I expressed my fears that it would be hard going for the two to continually co-pilot the 2010 project.

Always the consummate diplomat, Jordaan (pictured above), whom I have known for close to a decade now, cleverly sidestepped the question by choosing to savour the ecstatic moment and deferring his decision on his future for “later on”, as I expected he would.

But what I did not foresee was the reaction of Molefi Oliphant.

Sauntering up to me afterwards, the president of the South African Football Association (SAFA) at the time - who ought to know the state of play - found my question “interesting” and was also looking forward to getting an answer himself!

Five years on, it was an apt reflection of a divided SAFA house that managed to successfully unite for the country’s World Cup cause but has been subsequently hobbled by the fierce personal rivalries amongst its mandarins.

The dramatic turn of events at last Saturday’s SAFA presidential election, where Khoza and Jordaan, the frontrunners, pulled out, does little to change the outside view that FIFA may be compelled to save the South Africans from themselves and commandeer the final round of preparations for the World Cup.

It was a grave error of judgement for Jordaan and Khoza, who ought to concentrate on the huge responsibility of organising the 2010 World Cup, to be sidetracked by a quest to achieve a personal ambition at the expense of achieving a higher goal.

Jordaan had made his desire to be SAFA boss quite clear to me during a one-on-one breakfast meeting we had, whilst in Lagos for this year’s CAF Congress.

The current debacle, which has seen the emergence of Kirsten Nematandani as the compromise choice for president, keeps both men on a collision course that will certainly worsen their poor personal and professional relations.

SAFA, which had been told by FIFA to postpone the presidential election, had the right to reject the request of the world governing body to postpone the election.

Adhering to statutes, even when it is inconvenient, is an admirable act that should be a lesson for other African football associations and federations with sit-tight leaders.

But SAFA’s statutes should have made it impossible for Khoza and Jordaan to seek the top job as long as they were managing the preparations for the World Cup.

Blatter, who in his office, admitted to me  - in December 2006 - that he insisted on Khoza and Jordaan working together, has his hands full to ensure the marriage of (in) convenience does not end up in a bitter divorce.

Only the near-flawless organisation of the World Cup, which should be an unforgettable experience - I hope - will be incontrovertible proof of that.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nigeria: For whom the bells have tolled – again!

Foreseeing disaster, no matter how early you do it, never takes away the bitter pain of disappointment when you're compelled to confront the stark reality.

I had predicted, since December 2008, that fans of the national team should prepare their handkerchiefs for a flood of tears in the ensuing year.

But I was just as bitter and shell-shocked as every other Super Eagles supporter when the team snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory on Sunday evening against Tunisia in Abuja.

Even for a supposedly dispassionate football journalist like me, who has witnessed and chronicled a litany of heart breaking moments in 22 years of covering football, Nigeria’s almost-certain absence from the 2010 World Cup leaves a particularly foul taste in the mouth.

When Nigeria performed poorly at the 2002 World Cup finals, I warned, in a piece for BBC Sport Interactive, it could be entering a period of decline from which it would struggle to recover.

The abominable failure to qualify for the following World Cup in Germany proved me right.

Reflecting on that disappointment, this was what I said on October 14th 2005 on BBC Sport Interactive:

“As bitterness fuels the furore that has followed Nigeria's World Cup exit, only an honest and level-headed approach to solving problems will lead them out of the wilderness.

“Stability in coaching - done by competent hands - is a must, Europe-based players must show commitment to the Nigerian cause and the administrators must have the savvy to manage the national game properly.

“The Super Eagles' absence from Germany 2006 will be worth the expensive price, if it finally compels Nigeria to plan for global success.

“Depending on strokes of providence - which have finally run out - is just not good enough.”

To read the full piece go to:

All I need to do to make this piece of advice, written four years ago, contemporary is to substitute Germany 2006 with South Africa 2010 – which shows that those in the corridors of power are determined to learn nothing, except how to further mismanage Nigerian football.

As this blog is to cover African and not just Nigerian football, I have vowed to desist from writing frequently about the Super Eagles.

But it is tough to shy away from the fact that Africa’s largest country - in terms of population - will be absent from the African World Cup.

It is pointless to repeat advice on how to reverse this sorry decline, as I will only sound like a broken record.

I can only pray (and see if I can take an active part in ensuring) that the heads of those responsible for this sorry mess – Nigerian Football Federation president Sani Lulu, (pictured above) general secretary Bolaji Ojo’Oba and the executive board – are put on the guillotine block.

Those with the savvy and drive to ensure Nigeria takes its place as one of the world’s top football nations are desperate to be given the chance to serve a country that they dearly love.

But unless they are sought out and given unfettered authority – within the boundaries of FIFA regulations – to clean the filthy stables of Nigerian football administration, there will be more entries made into the diary of disaster.

Of that I am certain.

Friday, September 4, 2009

CAMEROON - Wounded Lions, battered pride and an uncertain future

As the only African team to make five appearances at the World Cup finals, having a historic Italia ’90 quarter-final run, as well as being four-time winners of the Cup of Nations, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions have, until recently, been worthy of their moniker.

But their stunning failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany and their precarious situation in the 2010 qualifying series, where they find themselves at the bottom of Group One, (with Gabon, yes little Gabon, sitting atop of it) reminds me of a stern warning I heard in Yaoundé two years ago.

Fon Echekiye, one of Cameroon’s leading football commentators on television, told me they were at real risk of “disappearing from the global football stage.”

“Without a complete overhaul of the administrative structure of Cameroonian football, we stand a real risk of not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup,” he said.

During my one-week trip in 2007, to research a feature I was writing
on the state of Cameroonian football for Fifa magazine, it was clear that Echekiye’s comments were far from alarmist and seem to be chillingly prophetic at the moment.

Joseph Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper (pictured above), who graciously let me into his expansive house in Douala when I showed up, unexpectedly, for a conversation on the Lions, was no less critical than Echekiye.

“Cameroonian football, at all levels, is very sick”, he said, noting that his compatriots were steeped in the nostalgia of their 1990 World Cup performance, at the expense of tackling present-day challenges that threaten to undo the image that has earned them the respect of the global football fraternity.

My fact-finding visit to the tattered Reunification Stadium, home of Union Douala, one of the country’s most distinguished clubs, was a sad eye-opener about the state of football facilities in Cameroon – it had a tattered roof, a patchy turf, dilapidated stands, as well as smelly and nasty-looking dressing rooms, which left me deeply shocked and saddened.

And Yaoundé was only slightly better… Players featuring for Canon Sportif and Tonnerre, Roger Milla’s old club, train on grounds that were as hard as granite and would break every bone that had the misfortune of making improper contact with it.

FECAFOOT, Cameroon’s Football Federation, is supposed to exclusively manage the affairs of the Indomitable Lions. But it is no secret that whoever occupies the sports minister’s chair has the ultimate word.

German Otto Pfister, the rolling coaching stone that has gathered Ghanaian, Congolese and Togolese moss, profited from this clash of wills.

The minister appointed him manager of the Lions for the 2008 Nations Cup campaign, even though Mohammed Iya, the FECAFOOT president and his executive board, clearly preferred another candidate.

But like all other European coaches before him, it was not too long before the old man went through the revolving door, despite taking the Lions to the 2008 Nations Cup final – although many of his critics can validly question whether his tactical acumen played any meaningful role in that.

With an enviable record of managing Lyon to three consecutive French championships, but unable to repeat the feat at Paris St Germain or Glasgow Rangers, Paul Le Guen has certainly not opted for a comfortable life by opting to take charge of Cameroon.

With the team in dire need of fresh legs and better administrative support, one wonders how Le Guen, used to working in an environment where clockwork efficiency is the rule rather than the exception, can cope with the maddeningly undulating Cameroonian terrain.

As a close friend, who is a FECAFOOT official, confessed to me, the administration of football in Cameroon is akin to a game of Russian roulette – no one knows when his head could be blown off by an adversary’s unexpected bullet!

Perhaps the unspeakable but stark possibility of missing out on another World Cup tournament may force Cameroon’s clueless sports mandarins to provide Le Guen, who is no shrinking violet, with the tools he requires to pull the qualifying chestnut out of the fire and pilot Cameroon to South Africa.

For readers acutely aware of my Nigerian heritage, and my country’s fierce rivalry with our next door neighbour or adversary, they might be shocked that I am quite concerned about their floundering fortunes.

But, as I told Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football, during a dinner table conversation in February, Africa will find it extremely tough to perform creditably at the 2010 World Cup if Cameroon and Nigeria are absent from it or are unable to present strong teams in South Africa.

So, it is for Africa’s sake that I worry about Cameroon’s precarious state. I sincerely hope they can conjure some sort of qualifying miracle out of the hat before disaster strikes twice…

Postscript - Goals from Achille Emana and Samuel Eto'o ensured a 2-0 win for Cameroon over Gabon in Libreville on Saturday September 6th,  giving them their first win in the final round of qualifying.