Offside, 14 February

Witchcraft is the least of African football's problems.

Duleep Alliraja

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Pele once predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the twentieth century.

To date only Cameroon have progressed as far as the quarter-finals and, on the evidence of the 2002 African Cup of Nations, the continent’s teams are not yet good enough to emulate that achievement. (For the record, Pele has also said that England can win the tournament. Does he go from one country to another predicting World Cup success willy-nilly?)

The BBC coverage of the Cup of Nations tournament, fronted by the cringingly wooden Garth Crooks, provided me with a good opportunity to assess the current state of the African game. Keen to rid the African game of its third-world image, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had decided to ban traditional healers from the pitch. ‘We are no more willing to see witchdoctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands’, declared a CAF statement. (I wonder if they put up notices saying ‘Sacrificing animals in view of the pitch is prohibited’?)

However, CAF’s PR strategy seriously backfired when the police arrested Cameroon’s goalkeeping coach for supposedly trying to drop a magic charm on the pitch before their semi-final against host country Mali. This bizarre incident, which appears to have been a deliberate attempt by the Malian police to unsettle the opposition, has only reinforced the backward image of African football.

No doubt African football is rife with all manner of hocus-pocus. An investigation in 2001 by African Soccer magazine found ‘a common thread of spiritual practices – animals sacrificed and their parts buried, midnight rituals, powder and smelly lotions – that embraces every part of sub-Saharan Africa’ (1).

But before we rush to dismiss African football as primitive, it is worth reflecting on the fact that superstitious practices thrive in Britain, too. Former England manager Glenn Hoddle famously took a faith healer, Eileen Drewery, to the World Cup in 1998. There have also been a number of reported cases of religious rituals being performed at British football grounds. Oxford United called in a bishop to perform an exorcism at their new Kassam stadium; Leyton Orient reportedly employed a druid to lift a curse on Brisbane Road; and Southampton are said to have hired a pagan goddess to help reverse their poor form at their new St Mary’s stadium.

So never mind the juju, what about the quality of African football? Well, to be honest, the Cup of Nations was disappointing as a spectacle. Goals were few and far between – though, in mitigation, it didn’t help that the matches were played in searing temperatures or that the pitches in Mali were appalling. The performances of three of Africa’s representatives at the 2002 World Cup finals, Tunisia, South Africa and Nigeria, were particularly disappointing. Tunisia failed to score a single goal in their three games, while Nigeria’s ensemble of European-based stars, perhaps with their eyes on the World Cup, appeared disjointed and disinterested.

The success of tournament winners Cameroon can be attributed to the influence of their German coach Winfried Schafer, who has dispensed with the happy-go-lucky attacking flair of old and adopted a more defensive, European style of play. ‘Let’s say that when Cameroon play now, we look a bit like Germany’, said full-back Geremi. ‘We are lucky to have a German, we are learning German things with him and it’s doing us good’, he added, adjusting his lederhosen and biting into his bratwurst. Indeed, so complete has been their Germanisation that Cameroon even won the final on penalties!

The discipline and solid organisation displayed by Cameroon and Senegal – neither side conceded a goal throughout the tournament – suggests that African football is starting to mature. But while the stronger African teams will be no pushovers in Japan/South Korea, none possesses the quality in depth needed to mount a serious challenge for the World Cup. Cameroon’s defence, which is marshalled by Rigobert Song, might appear unassailable in Africa, but will inevitably be found out by the better European and South American teams.

Moreover, as Cameroon may discover to their cost, looking like Germany is no longer anything to boast about.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) African Soccer, August 2001

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