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Joy, agony and shame at Afcon

By Isaac Massaquoi

I have to repeat in this column that Sierra Leone had no business taking part in the qualifying rounds of the last AFCON football tournament. It was convenient, however distasteful, to have used the Ebola outbreak and the economic squeeze it has brought on this already poor country as excuse to save the billions of leones we spent putting a few boys together, calling them a team and embarrassing our country both on the field and at the Sport Ministry and the SLFA secretariat. We had two rival team managers and coaches, travel arrangements were chaotic and even our sport journalists were at some point detained and thrown out of Cameroon in disgrace. We really didn't need to put ourselves through all that.

The three other teams in our qualifying group did extremely well at the tournament - Ivory Coast are now champions of Africa, D R Congo who made it to Equatorial Guinea as best losers came third and Cameroon could be proud that they put in a very decent performance. We had absolutely no chance against those countries.

I supported Ghana for obvious reasons. Sierra Leone is closer to that country in many ways than Ivory Coast who say they are part of our sub-regional body, the Mano River Union. There was agony across Ghana when they lost the cup despite performing well. I could feel their pain almost three hours away by Kenya Airways. As it is with penalty shootouts, things can easily go horribly wrong. It did for Ghana on the night.

Congratulations to the Ivorians who now rule Africa. The Ghanaians have something to look forward to. The young talents they displayed in Equatorial Guinea are men of the future. Watch out for young left full back, Abdul Rahman Baba who plays his club football with Bundesliga side FC Augsburg. It's probably too early to start predicting anything but I expect them to be singing God Bless the Homeland all the way to Accra in 2017.

Any comment on the last AFCON will be incomplete without putting on record certain incidents around the tournament starting with Morocco's refusal to host the rest of Africa by telling the world they didn't want people bringing Ebola into their country.

I have no problem with authorities in any country doing their best to secure their people against one of the world's most deadly diseases. But in this case, Morocco went way over the top - expert advice was clear that the threat of infection from the AFCON tournament was almost non-existent. How can Morocco explain the fact that even as they blocked the AFCON tournament, their national carrier – Air Maroc – continued to fly people from the affected countries through Morocco to the rest of the world, with one international flight after another having pulled out of Ebola-infected West Africa. (And the people of the sub-region are very grateful for that). Morocco also allowed the team from the country where the outbreak started to play their qualifying matches in the north African nation. So what was all that scaremongering and collective punishment of the entire continent about?

I think CAF was right to deal so drastically with Morocco even though I believe when tempers cool, CAF would review both punishments of a huge fine and a ban for two consecutive AFCON tournaments. Morocco's dithering and last-minute withdrawal from hosting AFCON created a lot of problems for CAF and Equatorial Guinea, the oil-rich country which did all it could in just a few weeks to bring Africans together. The country became a victim of its ambition to establish itself as a force on the African stage.

When their fans rioted and attacked Ghanaian fans after the classy West Africans whipped them out of the tournament at the semi-finals stage, instead of baying for their blood like some commentators, I felt sorry for them. Equatorial Guinea was encouraged by that rogue referee from Mauritius in their match against Tunisia, to believe they could go all the way.

They had no business in this tournament in the first place because they had been kicked out for fielding an ineligible player. By the time the Equatoguineans faced Ghana, they were physically and mentally tired. They had lost the plot but were determined to trick their way to football glory in Africa.

Equatorial Guinea had the infrastructure from their earlier co-hosting with Gabon but even with that they didn't have time to prepare their players and supporters to develop a spirit of sportsmanship - the kind of sportsmanship that allows one to applaud your opponents even after losing heavily to them on home soil.

I have no doubt that the appalling behaviour of their players on the pitch was definitely responsible for the action of their fans in the stands. Those players collectively challenged every decision of the referee that went against them. And at every turn, their supporters who were convinced the world was against them in a tournament they must host and win, were ready to mess things up.

From their performance on that night of shame, I can argue that the Equatoguineans also did not have enough time for security drills in crowd control tactics and all that. So here's what the world witnessed on semi-finals night – riot police with baton and shield, a police helicopter lobbing teargas into the crowd from the air, Ghanaian supporters in no man's land far away from their homeland being pelted with bottles and other missiles and an AFCON match suspended for more than half an hour because of crowd trouble – a real shame.

How did Issa Hayatou, the Sepp Blatter of African football, address those events? He accused the western media in particular of blowing the issue out of proportion because it happened in Africa. He attempted to point to crowd trouble in Europe that is not covered by the powerful media in much the same way. Well, at least Hayatou had some people listening to him. But I was not so interested in his narrative.

I understand all the troubles CAF went through to organise this tournament after that 11th hour Morocco pull out. Yes, there was also a situation in which the western media took a very sceptical line about the feasibility of the event once Morocco opted out of its responsibility to host; yes there was that incident in Serbia when fans even deployed a drone to rekindle the fire of Balkan ethnic violence but how often do those things happen out there. While Hayatou was blaming the western media for over-reporting the violence, football fans were killing each other once again in Egypt, the country in which CAF headquarters is located. Official reports say 20 people were killed – totally unnecessary loss of life just because people disagreed over football.

Despite all the troubles, I congratulate the people of Equatorial Guinea for standing by the African peoples at that crucial time.

For Sierra Leone, the last chance is the coming SLFA congress in April. Already, we are getting worrying signals and people alleging the SLFA is about to disenfranchise them. We will give the organisers a chance to put the wheels in motion. I warn, however, the eyes of the nation will be on this congress throughout. Here's why: we need a steady and cohesive SLFA to reunite football administrators and fans, get the local league running again, and rebuild the national team. This country must disband what we at preset call Leone Stars and tell all players to fight a place in the team.

Next step, this country must hire a professional coach from a serious European or Latin American country to build the team. Recycling tired ex-footballers in Freetown will take us nowhere. They have been great footballers on the pitch but I don't believe they are trained enough to cope with the technology and pace of modern football. I respect them for what they achieved for this country but look at the trend across Africa and tell me why we should be different.

© Politico 17/02/15