Big Boss Man Keshi’s Super Eagles: The Way Forward for African Football?

By | February 15th, 2013 | 4 Comments

Photo courtesy of Chris Bolsmann

The Big Boss Man of Nigeria’s Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi, transformed perennial underachievers of the African game into continental champions in the recent African Nations Cup in South Africa.

Keshi weeded out huge egos. He selected players based on ability, merit, and, most important, attitude. He imposed strict curfews on a team brimming with young players of limited experience drawn from Nigerian clubs rather than European ones. Thanks to his steady leadership, the Super Eagles defied the prognostications of pundits and fans alike in claiming their third African title.

Keshi knows how to win. He wore the captain’s armband in Nigeria’s previous Nations Cup triumph in 1994 against Zambia. The captain of the opposing side in that final in Tunis was Kalusha Bwalya, who played an important role in masterminding Chipolopolo’s 2012 championship run. “King Kalu,” currently Zambian Football Association president, saw to it that the nucleus of that winning Chipolopolo side stuck together for more than five years. Big Boss Keshi, on the other hand, overcame a perennial African problem by selecting a team based on what they can do, and what they are willing to do for the collective, instead of which European team they play for. In orchestrating their respective countries’ African triumphs, Bwalya and Keshi merely implemented a philosophy rarely found in most parts of African football: common sense.

The enduring lesson from Nigeria’s 2013 Nations Cup victory is that having so-called big names in your team is less than important than unity and a desire to win. As I have argued before, it is this generation of African football luminaries that must ensure that our football realizes its potential. When Keshi quit his job immediately after winning the title he cast light on the mediocrity of Nigerian football administration. (His resignation has since been withdrawn. Click here and here for more details.) The sight of South African Football Association president Kirsten Nemantandani looking bamboozled, insipid, and nervous when tasked with ceremoniously passing the CAF flag to Issa Hayatou is another reminder of why African football management should be the prerogative of competent, visionary people; not motley crews of myopic sorts whose organizations find themselves in the midst of FIFA match-fixing investigations.

Witnessing Slim Jedidi’s farcical refereeing in the Ghana-Burkina Faso semifinal, a fellow brother of mine noted: “Success in Africa is never rewarded because merit is hated. Why? Because the Big Men are there by fraud and manipulation.” Thank you to runners-up Burkina Faso and to Stephen Keshi for demonstrating how African football can soar above the deeds of those who always try to bring us backwards. May it continue in that trajectory.

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Nigeria’s Triumph, Africa’s Tournament

By | February 11th, 2013 | No Comments


Photos courtesy of Chris Bolsmann

By Chris Bolsmann (@ChrisBolsmann) and Marc Fletcher (@MarcFletcher1)

February 11, 2013 (23rd anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison.)

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Chris Bolsmann (CB): In February 1996, I celebrated with 100,000 other delirious South Africans packed into Soccer City after we beat Tunisia in the African Nations Cup final. It was a special victory and an important moment in South African sports history. It was more special that the 1995 rugby World Cup win because the soccer crown was won by a genuinely racially integrated team playing the game obsessively followed by most South Africans. 1996 has remained a very powerful memory for me over the last 17 years. However, there has always been one lingering doubt in the back of my mind: Nigeria, the reigning African champions at the time, did not participate.

The Nigerian junta’s sham trial and execution in November 1995 of author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa drew a sharp rebuke from then-South African President Nelson Mandela. Relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated and led to the reigning champions’ withdrawal from the 1996 tournament in South Africa. These events intensified the heated rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. For Sunday’s final I had planned to support Burkina Faso. The Burkinabé had reached their first-ever Nations Cup final by playing exciting and entertaining football; they were also the under-dogs.

Marc Fletcher (MF): I arrived at Soccer City’s National Stadium almost four hours before Sunday’s kickoff and was pleased to see that the Nations Cup party atmosphere had finally hit Johannesburg. Considering the large Nigerian population in the city, it was unsurprising that the vast majority of the fans streaming in were Super Eagles supporters. More surprising was the significant number of South Africans choosing to support Nigeria. After all, “Nigerians” here are perceived as illegal immigrants and dangerous criminals. Tensions between African immigrant communities and South Africans have sometimes spilled over into xenophobic attacks, as in the deadly riots of 2008. But the Nations Cup final appeared to turn this association upside down; being Nigerian, or identifying with Nigeria, had become a positive thing, if only temporarily.

Walking towards the spectacular stadium, it was also apparent how this experience differed from the World Cup I attended almost three years before. Back then, football fans had been promised an “African” World Cup (whatever that entailed). South Africans and tourists alike had been repeatedly told that “It’s Africa’s Turn” and that South Africa would show the world the positives Africa had to offer. Instead, a bland, commercialised FIFA-controlled environment reduced the local flavour of the tournament to the controversy surrounding vuvuzelas. As one of my local research informants summarised, “this could be anywhere!”

But 2013 was different. Cheaper tickets must have been a factor, allowing those who could not attend World Cup matches to engage, to experience and to celebrate. The bland hot dogs of the World Cup had been replaced with the pap and steak and boerwors rolls, staple foods at domestic matches. The relentless drumming from the small group of Burkinabé in the seats near me infused the tournament with the beat that had been lacking nearly three years ago. People of different racial, ethnic, class, and gender backgrounds socialised with one another–a dream for Rainbow Nation proponents–while the vast panoply of different African football shirts and flags reinforced a wider belonging to “Africa.” Security checks on spectators were inconsistent at best. A feeble, half-hearted pat down from a steward would do little to detect things such as flares, which constantly happens at local games (my favourite is still seeing someone pull out a full bottle of whiskey from his sock!). The pitch resembled a beach with players kicking up clouds of sand constantly. When Nigeria went ahead through Sunday Mba’s brilliant goal three-quarters of the stadium erupted in celebration. A far cry from the World Cup.



CB: Our tickets for the final were purchased months in advance, but as we tried to get to our seats it was clear that Nigerian fans occupied this part of the stadium. After stern words and persistence, we finally sat in our seats. It took stadium security and the South African police a good thirty minutes of the first half to move Nigerian fans seated on the stairs next to us to proper seats. I chatted to Sunday, a Nigerian national who told me he currently lives in Germiston on the East Rand (part of greater Johannesburg). Directly behind us was a group of eight or so trumpeters and a couple of drummers who played throughout the match. It was hard not to sway and dance to the fantastic music. By the time Nigeria took the lead my fickle allegiance was swaying towards the Super Eagles. When the final whistle blew I was happy Nigeria had won their third African title and had done so on South African soil. I look forward to Nigeria representing Africa at the Confederations Cup in Brazil later this year. But even more exciting is the prospect of South Africa regaining the lofty heights of 1996 and a show down with Nigeria. Despite Bafana’s quarterfinal exit, I carry on believing.

MF: I’ve fallen into the trap of comparing a westernised, modern, slick, commercialised World Cup with the chaotic yet dynamic African tournament. I’m not sure how to extricate myself from this other than to continue digging my hole with my romanticism of the final. It was a vibrant celebration of African football. Yet, as I drove to work this morning, the newspaper headlines attached to most Jo’burg streetlights were not about the final but Manchester United extending their lead at the top of the English Premier League. Is the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations already being forgotten?

A Giant Has Fallen: Théophile Abega has died

By | November 15th, 2012 | 2 Comments



Théophile Abega, the heart and soul of Cameroon’s superb national team of the 1980s, has died at the age of 58. Thoughtful, elegant, and tough, Abega had an illustrious club career with Canon Yaoundé. He was a dominant force in the team that twice won the African Champions Cup (1978, 1980), the African Cup Winners’ Cup (1976, 1979), and three domestic league titles. Abega’s only World Cup participation was in 1982 in Spain, where Cameroon drew all three group stage matches against Peru, Poland, and Italy.

I remember watching him on TV against my beloved Azzurri in an extraordinarily tense contest with qualification to the next round on the line. Abega’s composure, strength, and technique were striking. As a result of the 1-1 draw, Cameroon was eliminated on goal difference (number of goals scored in fact) but nevertheless enhanced the image of African football on the global stage. Two years later, as the video above demonstrates, Abega was at his footballing peak as Cameroon defeated Nigeria 3-1 in the 1984 African Nations Cup final. The Indomitable Lions returned to international glory at the 1990 World Cup in Italy (Roger Milla!), but by that time Abega had closed out his career with Toulouse in France and no longer commanded Cameroon’s midfield with his consummate professionalism and style.

May his soul rest in peace.

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Banyana Bandwagon

By | November 9th, 2012 | 3 Comments

South Africa’s women’s national team recorded its most important victory ever on November 7 by defeating Nigeria 1-0 in the semifinal of the 8th African Women’s Football Championship in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Defender Janine Van Wyk long-range blast gave Banyana Banyana (The Girls) their first-ever win against the six-time champion Super Falcons. South Africa will face Equatorial Guinea in the final on Sunday, November 11, a team that beat them 1-0 in the first group stage match.

“I have been in the Banyana Banyana side since 2004 and we have tried for so long to beat the Nigerians but luck has never been on our side, but now we have proved that we can compete and beat of the best on the continent,” said Van Wyk. “At the CAF African Championship held in South Africa in 2010 I scored with a free kick from 35 metres out against Nigeria, and my teammates always remind me that I normally reserve my best for matches against Nigeria,” she laughed.

With the men’s team — Bafana Bafana — struggling, it is perhaps not surprising that South African fans and the football establishment are leaping onto the Banyana bandwagon. Following the win against Nigeria, SAFA President Kirsten Nematandani announced he would be flying out to attend the final. “The victory should open doors for the growth of women’s soccer,” he said. “Well done to the girls for making the country proud.”

“We are in a very positive frame of mind going into the final game against the hosts,” said Joseph Mkhonza, the Banyana head coach. “But we are still focused on attaining our mission of taking gold in this tournament. We came here with a mission and that mission is still on track,” he said. “We have some homework to do before Sunday’s final, knowing we will play in front of a large red-clad crowd in what is certain to be a packed Malabo stadium, but we will be ready for the challenge.”

Spotlight on the 2011 Women’s World Cup: Nigeria

By | June 22nd, 2011 | 4 Comments



The New York Times today has a piece by Jere Longman about homophobia in the Nigerian team about to play in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. While it’s nice to see the newspaper of record in the U.S. paying attention to the women’s game and to African women in particular, the overall thrust of the article is that homophobia is an example of the “cultural obstacles that remain for many African women who play soccer.”

The story focuses on a single character: head coach Eucharia Uche. A former player and fervent evangelical Christian, Uche claims to have “used religion in an attempt to rid her team of homosexual behavior,” describing the latter as a “dirty issue,” and “spiritually, morally very wrong.”

There are several problems with the article, but I’ll focus on two key ones: (1) blaming “culture,” and (2) African “exceptionalism.” Let’s tackle the first one. While “cultural inhibitions are still cited as inhibitions to girls playing” notes Martha Saavedra’s seminal 2003 overview of the African women’s game published in Soccer and Society, “the general economic troubles and the lack of resources overall is still perhaps the most serious hindrance. Even the bans on women’s football in Northern Nigeria may be indirectly linked to this.” Yes, cultural conservatism (not “culture”) is a factor in some areas, but this does not necessarily apply to all of Nigeria, let alone all of “Africa” as the article’s headline suggests.

This reductionism leads to my second point: African exceptionalism. The first thirteen paragraphs of the article create the impression that homophobia is a singularly “African” issue. It is only in the 14th paragraph that some de-exoticization finally takes place: “The treatment of lesbians in sport is not a matter restricted to women in Africa. Some women on previous United States national soccer teams have been reluctant to live openly gay lifestyles for fear of repercussions.” Surely, American readers of the Times would have been quite interested to learn more about the existence of a “culture” of silence and repression in elite U.S. soccer. It might even invite a comparison with the grim situation in Uche’s squad.

The lack of discussion about women’s football in Nigeria is puzzling as well. The article contains not a single reference to the rich history of the game in Africa’s most populous nation. As I write in African Soccerscapes, women in Nigeria were playing as early as 1943. The 20 October 1943 issue of the Nigerian Spokesman newspaper ran this story:

In response to the demand of the people of Onitsha, the Sierra Leonean friendly Society has started to make arrangements for the replay of the ladies’ football mach which so thrilled the township recently. Good news for football enthusiasts . . . It was the first of its kind to be staged in Onitsha.” Fine show but not up to the standard of boys soccer. “It seemed odd to some to see our women in shorts kicking a football about the field, or clashing with one another after the manner of men . . . but the game itself, when it came to be played, exploded all the fantastic theories some malevolent individuals had concocted about it, and it was a colossal success both in the fun that it provided and on the financial side of it.

By 1960 (Nigeria’s independence) there were women’s teams in Jos, Lagos, Calabar, Onitsha, Kanu, Enugu and other towns. By 1989 there were 28 women’s clubs active, as well as a Nigerian Female Football Organizers Association. This history is vital to gaining a sharper understanding of the Super Falcons’ continental dominance since they first represented Africa at the WWC in 1991.

Let’s hope that future U.S. media coverage of the 2011 WWC will be more informed and more tightly focused on the game itself. The fans deserve it. The players deserve it. Football deserves it.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons are African champions

By | November 14th, 2010 | No Comments



Nigeria 4, Equatorial Guinea 2. The Super Falcons are champions of Africa. The United Nations of Equatorial Guinea put up a good fight, but could not defend their title. Nigeria’s goals came from omniescent Perpetua Nkwocha and Ugochi Oparanozie, and from two own goals — one of them by Carolina, who also headed both of Equatorial Guinea’s goals.

It was 1-1 going into the final 15 minutes, but Nigeria got the job done when it mattered most. Oparanozie’s header made it 2-1 in the 76th minute and just three minutes later an own goal header by Noah Nkein put Nigeria ahead 3-1. Jade pulled one back in the 82nd before Carolina knocked the ball into her own net two minutes later. When the final whistle blew it was nice to see the 15,000 fans applauding the Super Falcons.

Perpetua Nkwocha won the Golden Boot (11 goals) and Stella Mbachu was awarded the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament. In the end, Nigeria dominated the African Women’s Championship and fully deserved their sixth continental crown in seven tries.

I enjoyed following the tournament and watching matches on TV. The women’s game in Africa is clearly progressing technically, tactically and physically. But much more needs to be done at the grassroots level in every country. Long-term growth and sustainable development require greater media attention and sponsorships, as well as support from male-dominated football associations and access to formal training from a young age. Until these components are put into place, expect Nigeria’s dynasty in African women’s football to continue long into the future.

Heartbreak for South Africa

By | November 11th, 2010 | 3 Comments



The biggest day in South African women’s football history ended in heartbreak as Equatorial Guinea defeated Banyana Banyana 3-1 after extra time on Thursday at a packed Sinaba stadium in Daveyton outside Johannesburg. After 90 minutes the score was 0-0.

The decisive moment came in the 103rd minute. Salimata Simpore capitalized on a defensive mistake by Van Wyk with a simple finish from just inside the box to give the defending champions a 1-0 lead they did not relinquish.

Psychologically shaken and physically tired, the hosts collapsed. In the 109th minute, a Banyana corner led to a breakaway by Equatorial Guinea that ended with a Jade cross being clumsily deflected by Dludlu inside the far post for an own goal that put the game away. As the deflated home crowd filed out of the stadium, Salimata collected a cross, and in one smooth move faked out a Banyana defender and the goalkeeper to slot home a third goal. Amanda Dlamini saved South Africa’s honor with a delicate chip over the keeper two minutes from time. Final score: 3-1 Equatorial Guinea.

The game had started with the defending champions in control, a fact reflected in their 60 per cent possession of the ball in the first twenty minutes. But the first chance fell to South Africa in the 14th minute when in-form striker Amanda Dlamini squandered the easiest of chances, shooting right at the goalkeeper from close range. Banyana gained confidence and territory in the latter part of the first half, largely thanks to Jafta’s domination of the midfield. Just before the break, Van Wyk’s free kick missile from 40 meters out (!) was tipped over the bar by Miriam. On the ensuing corner, Jafta turned and struck a wonderful shot from near the penalty spot, which forced a miraculous diving save from the Equatorial Guinea keeper. No score after a bruising first half. South Africa would come to rue the missed chances.

The second half was more guarded, neither side wanting to risk making a costly mistake. The Togolese referee seemed far too tolerant of rough tackling, with several players on both sides suffering injuries that required bandaging of heads as well as “holy water” treatment. Despite notching 56 percent of possession, Banyana were unable to penetrate, or seriously threaten the Equatorial Guinea defense anchored by Carolina. Then a turning point in the match: Augustine Makalakalane, South Africa’s coach, replaced Jafta with Makhabane, hoping to gain in creativity and attacking force. Instead the move backfired as Equatorial Guinea asserted control of the midfield. The best chances in the final twenty minutes fell to Chinasa Okoro and Salimata, with goalkeeper Mndaweni doing well to stop them in one-on-one situations.

Dlamini almost won it for South Africa on the stroke of 90 minutes with a high shot to the near post that Miriam parried away for a corner. As we readied ourselves for extra time, Salimata broke away from her marker down the right side but failed to deliver an easy pass to Chinasa for the simplest of tap-in goals. It was a sign of things to come.

Earlier in the day, news reports in South Africa had criticized Equatorial Guinea for quickly giving citizenship to players from Brazil, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Senegal. According to kickoff.com, Salimata even played in the AWC qualifiers for Ivory Coast! Cameroon lodged an official protest about Salimata in the group stage, but CAF appears uninterested in pursuing the case.

So Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria — 5-1 winners over Cameroon in the other semifinal — will represent Africa at 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. The African champion will be determined on Sunday.

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