Cup of Nations: Landmines, weak bladders and more Angolan red tape
Memorable week as giant screens are stopped at customs, a journalist is 'assaulted' and goalkeeping hits a new low
Sunday 24 January 2010
Oh, the goalkeeping. Kennedy Mweene was goalkeeper of the year in the South African league last season, but in this tournament the Zambia No 1 will be remembered for one thing: with Zambia 1-0 up midway through the second half and about to dump Cameroon out the tournament, Geremi slung in an aimless cross from the right. The ball was probably drifting wide, but halfway through its flight, Mweene decided it was too close for comfort. His feet, though, were wrong, then his hands were wrong, and finally his body was wrong, as he flopped over the ball, getting just enough of a touch to drag it inside his far post. Cameroon had a lifeline they took to win 3-2, and the already poor goalkeeping in the tournament reached a new low.
Convention has it that there are good times to score, but it turns out there are also bad times to score. By banging in two in the first three minutes against Malawi, Mali left Algeria and Angola to play out a 0-0 draw that took both through thanks to the idiocy of the head-to-head rule. Had they waited a while and left the possibility of a Malawi win, Angola and Algeria might have been forced to play properly. As German journalists excitedly saw vindication – "never again can they accuse us over 1982" [when West Germany contrived a 1-0 win over Austria that took both through to the second phase of the World Cup at Algeria's expense] – others thought back to the African Under-21 championship in Ethiopia in 2001. Then, rioting by local fans convinced Egypt and Cameroon to concoct a draw to take both through ahead of Ethiopia. But this, in turn, led organisers to prohibit a draw in that game, ruling that if scores were level it would be settled by penalties.
How ludicrous is Angolan bureau-cracy? Take this example. The government ordered two giant screens from a British company at a cost of £120,000 each, for use in a proposed fan-park in Luanda. The screens, though, were stopped at customs, who insisted they needed a signature from the minister. After a fortnight of waiting, the contractors charged with importing and erecting the screens gave up and went home. Ghana's injury-ravaged squad did enough to see off Burkina Faso.
Do Angolans have the smallest bladders in the world? Certainly it would seem so after a five-hour bus journey from Benguela to Lubango was stretched to seven hours by staggeringly frequent toilet-breaks, which were given a frisson by the driver's regular warnings not to wander too far from the road for fear of landmines. The large rusting tank by the side of the road was a further reminder that as we headed up on to the plateau we were moving into territory once controlled by the Unita rebels. Without ever playing fluently, Nigeria did enough to beat Mozambique 3-0 and progress to the last eight.
Lubango boasts the world's third largest statue of Christ the Redeemer. It stands on the escarpment above the town, is unprepossessing by day, but takes on an eerie majesty at night as floodlights illuminate the mists that swirl around it. Perhaps they'd simply tried to get their heads around the perversity of the head-to-head system, which left everybody in doubt for several minutes after the game as to who had topped the group following Zambia's 2-1 win over Gabon and Cameroon's 2-2 draw with Tunisia. As goals flew in unpredictably in both games, this was the afternoon when the tournament caught light.
News broke of a Ghanaian journalist who claims to have been assaulted by security after reacting badly to being denied access to a press conference. There could have been something equally unsavoury in Lubango on Thursday as fans of Cameroon and Tunisia gathered with an array of brass instruments to serenade the teams as they made their way to the bus. Angolan police, over-reacting badly, kicked some Tunisian journalists out of the mixed zone and refused me access. A wave of the correct accreditation was met with only a wave of a baton: I decided I didn't need Rigobert Song quotes that badly and left.
There was a theory that as the novelty wore off, local interest in the tournament would wane, but the queues that stretched twice round the block for tickets for tomorrow's quarter-final between Cameroon and Egypt suggest Angolans remain as enthusiastic as ever. Whatever faults there have been in the organisation, and whatever difficulties with the infrastructure, this Cup of Nations has had better local support than any in recent history.
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