The Desert Foxes Hold Sway In African Football

“This goes beyond sports. It is a question of national pride.” – Amina to Al Jazeera

THE ALGERIANS may have put their struggle for independence behind them. In the “Algerian War” (La guerre d’Algerie), the peoples of the Atlas Mountain country grouping themselves under the National Liberation Front (Front se Liberation Nationale – FLN) fought France between 1954 and 1962 till independence was won in 1962. Algeria (named after the capital Algiers al-jazair – the islands) in the Maghreb region of North Africa is bordered in the North-East by Tunisia; the east by Libya; the west by Morocco; South-West by Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali; South-East by Niger: the Mediterranean Sea washes the shore to the north.

Only about 12% of the total land mass is inhabited by the over 42 million people. November 1st is the National day (also called ‘Revolution Day’). The National Emblem adopted in 1976 features the Atlas Mountains and the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, with the crescent below. The motto is “S weyref i weyref” (By the people and for the people). The currency is “dinar”.

The staple food is “couscous” (semolina-like pasta made from wheat) and “tagine” (stew usually prepared with lamb or chicken). This is the most popular everyday dish. The 1976 Constitution (Article 3) names Arabic as the national language; but we also have Tindouf, Kabyle and Bedouin dialects. Algerian Arabic (Darija) and Tamazight (Berber) which are native languages spoken by over 95% of the population. French is the most widely studied foreign language, with scientific and business courses taught in French. (France colonized Algeria in 1830 and made it part of Continental France)

Then came AFCON 2019. The final was between Senegal and Algeria. The celebrations that were held immediately the referee signaled the end of the Algerian-Senegal match was spontaneous and ecstatic. The citizens could not be restrained from indulging themselves in hilarity with the “Imzad” music or the Andalusian classical music like “Sana’a”, “Gharnati”, “Ma’Inf”, while artiste Beihdja Rahal, Brahim Hadj Kacem, Nouri Koufi, Leila Hamozi shared the joy with the players.

It was a third minute goal by Baghad Bounedja (aided by a deflection) which earned the Algerians the crown and $4.5million prize money. After winning their first AFCON in 1990 when they hosted it- thus, it took them twenty-nine long years to come back to their winning ways and they did it, playing consistently and tactically under Coach D’jamed Belmadi. The team under the captainship of Riyad Mahrez played “with a lot of heart, effort and solidarity”.

Ghana’s Black Stars came back home, arriving at dawn, and crestfallen Coach Kwesi Appiah and his team did not have even a pin to show for their participation. The last time Ghana won the AFCON was in Libya in 1982 beating the Host nation 7-6 on penalties, after drawing 1-1, history beckoned the Black Stars in Senegal – but for the handing over of the Captain’s band from Kwesi Appiah to “the maestro” Abedi Pele: victory eluded them when the players would not play as a united team. With a four-time win (1963, 1965, 1978, and 1982) and a five-time runner up (1968, 1970, 1992, 2010 and 2015). Black stars are yet to make a showing at the AFCON. Ghanaians will for long remember some historic dates in their football calendar: the first international between the Gold Coast and Nigeria on 16th October, 1950 in which Ghana won by 1-0; the Jalco Cup match of 1955 in which Ghana won by 7-0; the Jalco Cup match of 1956 in which Nigeria won by 5-0; the total annihilation by Bulgaria to a pulsating 10-0 defeat at Mexico ’68; Luis Suarez’s deliberate hand-ball in South Africa 2010 World Cup leading to Ghana’s exit from the World Cup.

AFCON 2019 has shown that there are no longer minnows in African football. In a David-Goliath mode, the power houses that were tipped to win the cup were eliminated: Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Egypt. When Bafana Bafana (South Africa) whipped the Pharaohs (Egypt) before their home-crowd of 70,000 at the Cairo Stadium, the glamour of the tournament was frittered away. The fans were no longer patronizing the matches.

Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Burundi and Madagascar must be congratulating themselves for their showing. For Madagascar, it was a sweetness to relish. The debutantes, Madagascar, displayed rare mastery in football that made the commentator remark: “Most people think Madagascar is a movie”.

Certainly, there will be various post-mortem discussions- some academic, some not so academic; some virulent, some sober, et cetera. Ghanaians are calling for the head of the Black Stars coach. Some people are saying Kwesi Appiah is too soft to discipline the Stars, many of whom ply their trade in Europe. Of course, Kwesi Appiah appears taciturn and cool. He does not seem to have the temperament of Jose Mourinho or even Pep Guardiola. Kwesi Appiah’s coaching style has become very debatable and people have forgotten how he came onto the scene. We had been paying huge salaries to foreign coaches, and it was felt we could get adequate reward if we tried to be “inward-looking”. Supported by a management team, it was felt, Coach Kwesi Appiah would make a mark. However, consistently, he appeared to be making such gaffes as he proceeded. John Boye may appear in the record books of the 2019 AFCON as the first player to be sent off the pitch for a second bookable offence. One wonders why John Boye was not substituted after he had been shown the red card in the first half for fouling an opponent in the Benin Team.

Again, some people may not understand why Kwesi Appiah kept Asamoah – Gyan on the bench for so long when he could have paired up with Dede Ayew to produce the expected results. And some people are fuming over the Stars going to the tournament with their wives and girlfriends. The young men are still in their youthful ages – what other chance do they have in pleasing their girlfriends and wives- some of the players argue. After all, they earn big money, and can afford to pay for hotel accommodation for their concubines – but mustn’t they respond to calls for training and preparation for matches? For such tournaments, discipline and self-denial (or self-abnegation) are key

For 37 years, Ghana has been searching and probing for the diadem in African Football. It has not been easy-going. But it may not be for this year when all the mighty had “fallen”. Champion nations like Egypt fell by the wayside: what can be more painful than being a host nation that is kicked out at the preliminary stage? Meanwhile, for these nations which have made their debut, they are welcome to the football-fold. To the Algerians, we share your bliss: “Monya anigye a monkae yen”. Remember us in your merriment.

Africanus Owusu – Ansah

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