Juggling act with coach adds to the allure of Togo circus

Football is unifying the impoverished West African nation and not even a farcical bonuses row can halt their great moment today
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Togo's greatest sporting moment looms. Back in the capital, Lome, a city where you find football everywhere, adoring crowds will gather around TV sets this afternoon to cheer on their team as they take on South Korea in Frankfurt in their first match at the World Cup finals.

However, the small West African country's preparations have been overshadowed by the bizarre departure of their coach Otto Pfister, the veteran German, who walked out on Friday night. A simmering row over bonuses for the players became too much for him.

Yesterday, however, a complicated saga appeared to take another dramatic turn when Pfister, 68, said he would return to take charge of today's game. "The players intervened massively," he said. "I received a fax from the [Togolese football association] president and I will sit on the bench as coach of the team [today]."

However, a high-ranking government official was later quoted as saying that the reappointment would not occur, and it was reported that another coach, Kodjovi Mawuena, would be in charge for their opening game. Players have demanded €155,000 (£106,378) each to play in the World Cup plus €30,000 each per win and €15,000 per draw. Negotiations are still at a deadlock but players have signalled they would play anyway.

When I spoke to Pfister a few weeks ago, he had only just met some of the players he was planning to take to the World Cup. He spoke optimistically about Togo's chances and described the excitement in West Africa. "It is like a religion," he said. "Everybody is behind the team, from grandfather to baby. When Togo plays a game, no one is in the street."

Yet, for months, supporting Togo has been a challenging experience. When the team qualified for Germany last autumn, jubilant crowds spilt on to the capital's streets to celebrate. The nervous authorities feared disorder, and switched off the electricity, turning the lights out on Lome's party.

Then came this year's African Nations' Cup. Three games, three defeats, an early exit and rumours of bitter discord in the camp. The Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi lost his job and Pfister was appointed.

Watching the team during their preparations, it was clear that the country was already in the grip of World Cup fever. "You know, if you say you come from Togo, people don't know where Togo is," one female fan told me. "Togo is such a small country. Maybe now, with the World Cup, they will know about Togo."

Her view was shared by another fan, Olivier Benoir, as he talked to me on Lome's long beachfront. "The World Cup is a thing of joy," he said. "It's something great for me, something to rejoice about."

On the poor backstreets, a group of barefooted boys chases a small, punctured ball through the puddles left by another wet-season downpour. On a forlorn local pitch, dozens of teenagers splash about in the rainwater. If the facilities are threadbare, the skills are impressive and the dedication is obvious. As well as the usual Manchester United and Chelsea kits, I spotted Bristol City, Crewe Alexandra, Wolves and West Brom shirts on Lome's streets.

Many I met wanted to ask about their country's captain Emmanuel Adebayor and his progress at Arsenal, and predicted glory ahead for Togo's team.

Togo is a French-speaking nation of five million and was once a commercial hub serving the entire region. It is not West Africa's poorest country, but average daily income is still estimated at little over a dollar. A trip to Germany to see the games with South Korea, Switzerland and France is far beyond the reach of most Togolese. The government is to fly some supporters to the tournament.

Among the fans planning to travel to Germany is Togbui Gnagblondjro III, a voodoo chief. Togo has a strong tradition of voodoo. After a ceremonial welcome, he describes how he will be going to the World Cup with some of his helpers, offering his own help to the national team. He will not go into precise details about what he plans to do, but he offers to predict Togo's match scores and insists "they will go far".

Despite the unseemly rows, the Togo government sees football as a unifying force. "The whole of the Togolese people is united behind Les Eperviers," the Prime Minister Edem Kodjo, said. " It's something very impressive and very positive. Football is bringing unity in this country."

With a match against the old colonial master, France, the Prime Minister did not rule out switching off the lights once again if celebrations get out of hand.

James Helm travelled to Togo for the 'Assignment' programme on BBC World Service Radio

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