By Dr Joel Rookwood – @JoelRookwood
The Cup of African Nations has been staged at fluctuating intervals since its inception in 1957, from an annual to quadrennial basis, across 19 different states. CAF – the Confederation of African football – is the largest organisation of the FIFA family. 51 of CAF’s 56 members entered the qualification process for the 31st edition of the event in Gabon in 2017. Unlike South and North American and of course European tournaments, the African (and Asian) events take place in the middle of the congested European football season, and can almost drown in a sea of football as a result.
Africa is the hottest continent on earth – I flew to Gabon for the event from Ethiopia, where the highest annual temperatures in the world are recorded. In a vast continent with significant variance in climate, the conditions for football are considered to be optimal for the majority in January. Global interest in the event is inevitably limited as a consequence however, and with recent player market values indicating that four fifths of the world’s costliest players are employed in Europe, there is resistance and friction between those representing African and Eurocentric interests.
I made plans to travel to Gabon during a trip to Rwanda in July, a period when CAF were promising a stable and successful tournament in 2017. By October however, the prospective host nation was in turmoil. In the week leading up to the draw for the event, political unrest was palpable on the streets of Libreville, Gabon’s capital city. In August the incumbent president Ali Bongo was awarded a narrow victory over longstanding presidential challenger Jean Ping. Bongo has ruled the country since 2009 having succeeded his father, the late Omar Bongo, who took office in 1967. Protest, destruction and violence ensued amidst allegations of corruption. Some clashes between groups proved fatal, and rumours of death tolls ranging from single figures to fifty began to circulate.
Opposition supporters accused Bongo of falsifying the election results in certain regions, one of which claimed 99.83% of the local population participated in the vote (the national average was 59.51%). The capital city – meaning ‘Free town’ in English – seemed anything but, as 1100 arrests were made, and an imposed ‘phone and social media blackout was followed by a suspension of visas issued to foreign journalists and the widespread installation of roadblocks. Applying for a visa to visit Gabon for CAN 2017 might have seemed less appealing as a consequence. The foreign ministry of France (the colonial power until Gabon’s independence in 1960) urged the Gabonese government to release the details of election results, whilst the United Nations called for peace, and the U.S. embassy in Libreville issued a security warning advising its citizens of “widespread, violent demonstrations.”
I typically travel to football mega events for the group stages, when matches are frequent, all are present and excitement and hope remain intact. I flew from Addis Ababa, travelling over dense forests as the sun rose, when the absence of electric lighting and paved roads suddenly gave way to tarmac, concrete and the sight of moving vehicles. A shiny football ground then came into view on a spacious site north of the capital. The stadium glistened in the early morning light, a structure that seemed out of place in its surroundings. It was the whitest of African elephants. Libreville’s Stade de l’Amitié is one of four venues to stage CAN 2017 – all of which had been funded and constructed by China. Plans for the long term usage of these facilities remain unclear. In Gabon tournament legacies do not feature in the commitment to funded construction.
This is not a recent or isolated development. All four stadiums that played host to matches at Angola’s 2010 CAN were also funded and built by China. Preferential and even exclusive rights to natural resources is the chosen form of reciprocity. The Asian superpower is not the only importer of Angolan oil, but it is the primary consumer. Similarly, when Ghana hosted the event in 2008 I met Chinese ‘investors’ in Accra who spoke proudly of their nation’s contribution which helped finance all four stadiums for the event. Two years earlier I was working on a football project to help facilitate child ex-combatants into civil society for an NGO in post-war Liberia, and we visited various rubber plantations all of which were managed by Chinese staff. There is clearly a correlation between natural resources, Chinese investment and cooperation partnership and the export of African petroleum and rubber amongst other resources.
I landed at Libreville’s international airport clutching my stamped yellow fever certificate which is a condition of entry. The 40-yard bus ride to the terminal barely gave me time to swallow an antimalarial tablet. Inside the terminal building I was reacquainted with some familiar and frustrating bureaucratic processes. Admittedly my accomplice had applied for his e-visa later than planned, and had risked travelling to Gabon despite not having received confirmation that it had been accepted. Given the delays processing foreign guests, the plane we had arrived on had left for its next destination by the time our case was considered, which it transpired was the only reason an ‘emergency’ visa was granted. Deportation requires transportation. Locked in a sweltering room for two hours with a broken air conditioner for company, speaking broken French to irate officials was not how we planned to spend our first afternoon in Gabon.
One by one, airport officials offered disparaging looks before disappearing into the toilets, returning with their uniform on a coat hanger, and proudly displaying their national colours; ‘Aubameyang’ printed on the back of replica football shirts, match tickets in hand. The impending and important CAN fixture for the host nation eventually helped to speed up our process. No one wanted to be left babysitting the airport’s only remaining tourists whilst Gabon were playing. The French expat whose beachfront apartment we had rented for the week was summoned to the airport to expedite proceedings, and subsequently became our named visa sponsor. Once again however the dotting and crossing of documents was then inextricably delayed. With kick off looming I sensed an offering might help conclude the ordeal, and duly and discretely obliged. ‘Scousers learn to read between the lines before they learn to read’ as a local author once wrote. Of the 150 countries I have visited, ten per cent have involved additional payment to lubricate cooperation in one context or other: an unofficial taxation on tourism.
For international visitors tickets for CAN matches are virtually impossible to purchase in advance, but are rarely difficult to access locally. The boycotting of matches from some Gabonese protestors angry with the political corruption had further enhanced the availability of tickets. We purchased ours before leaving the airport at face value – £14 for a double header, including the hosts in the capital: Gabon v Burkina Faso followed by Cameroon v Guinea Bissau. The blend of rhythm, colour, noise, unbridled excitement and almost complete absence of animosity which can make the African football crowd unique was distinctly apparent. Another 1-1 draw for the host nation however preceded a 2-1 victory for Cameroon, placing Gabon’s northern neighbours in pole position in Group A. The first match was well attended, with crowds dwindling for the second game; and yet given the number of empty seats the official attendance of 39,230 for Gabon’s game in the 40,000 Stade de l’Amitié was certainly an exaggerated figure.
The expansion of twenty-first century football mega events has incurred different responses to the various challenges associated with hosting large numbers of residential and visiting supporters. One consistent concern has involved controlling and entertaining large groups of opposing supporters in host cities who have not secured tickets for a match, and providing the facility for them to watch the broadcasted game projected on a large screen. Some tournament organisers have responded by committing large, specifically located public spaces to temporarily erected ‘Fan Zones’. The Gabon 2017 organising committee had announced plans for CAN’s ‘first Fan Zone’, although to avoid deterring match attendance in the other three host cities, the facilities were proposed solely for the capital. In a city covered in official CAN signage, only a single hand-painted sign for a Fan Zone greeted supporters as they approached the stadium. Following the sign, we were directed on a circular tour of the stadium, bringing us back to the same sign without passing anything that might be recognised as a Fan Zone. The designated facility outside Accra’s national stadium at the 2008 CAN was a far closer representation of such a site.
With domestic travel to the other three host cities proving excessively complicated, evenings often involved watching fiercely contested beach football as the sun set over Libreville, in between CAN matches screened from Oyem, Franceville and Port-Gentil. The days in between matches were spent exploring the capital and meeting its people. A walking tour of central Libreville included a visit to the National Assembly, a section of which remains burnt out after attempts to destroy the building during the political protests in late August. At the nearby Ministry of Petroleum Mining and Hydrocarbons, a sign in French proclaimed ‘Natural resources are depleting, innovation is eternal’.
In keeping with the theme of misappropriation, we then visited the multi-purpose sporting arena Stade Omar Bongo in central Libreville, which should have been a centrepiece of the event. Despite a $220m investment, the alleged siphoning of funds delayed construction and the venue currently lies half finished, a building site inaccessible to the public and surrounded by rubbish dumps. Needless to say, unlike the Stade de l’Amitié, Shanghai Construction are not listed as the main contractors of Stade Omar Bongo. What helps makes Africa such a compelling continent in spite of its persistent challenges however, are its communities of people. The image of children playing street football in bare feet with rocks for goalposts, breastfeeding mothers watching on as fathers tinkered with rusting car engines – all in the shadow of the impenetrable national stadium, was in many respects representative of the city and so many others like it.
Our daily visit to the luxurious bar of an elitist city centre hotel – primarily for reliable Wi-Fi and some ethnically ambiguous cuisine – was a counterpoint to the assault to the senses that is downtown Libreville. For host cities in developing countries, where there is a small concentration of upmarket hotels, these establishments are also a goldmine of information and networking. I have learned more about how mega events operate from observations and interactions at these exclusive venues than through virtually anything I have read. Academics might be uncomfortable with that, or claim I’m reading the wrong writers, but those who publish work on Global South mega events having spent time in these places in person will know of their significance. Where else could you meet such a cluster of club representatives, national team personnel, politicians, journalists, television crews, sponsors, scouts, agents and ex-footballers and their respective entourages – a rich collection of individuals confined in space, united through circumstance and markedly receptive to conversation?
The following day, the deciding group fixture for Gabon saw the hosts take on Cameroon. A win would send Aubameyang et al. into the knockout stages at the expense of their more illustrious neighbours. Vehicles weighed down by inconceivable numbers of supporters laboured in congestion towards the stadium. Outside the ground busloads of Gabonese fans arrived wearing Sunderland shirts with ‘Ndong 17’ on the back, in honour of the local crowd favourite Dider Ndong. The confident Cameroon fans were outnumbered by vocal and colourful Gabonese supporters. Despite hitting the post in the agonising final moments of the match, Gabon could not muster a goal, and the stalemate saw Cameroon progress instead behind group winners Burkina Faso.
In the immediate aftermath of the match there followed an unexpected and brief but clear episode of disorder: Celebrating Cameroonian players gravitated towards the concentrated pack of delirious away fans behind the goal. As shirts were flung into the crowd, several fans perched precariously on the fence separating producers from consumers tumbled over barriers and towards players, with varying degrees of intent and success. Security personnel were physical and in some cases brutal in their response. My highlights video of the tournament captures the scene. The film also shows instances of suspicious kick-offs on the pitch, with balls kicked long into touch from (re-)starts, which one agent warned me was linked to related betting practices.
Following an unbeaten yet winless record, the host’s early exit inevitably dampened the public mood. A headline in one of Gabon’s French language newspapers led with the phrase ‘Déjà vu’, a reference to that already seen. Gabon had progressed to the quarterfinals of the 2012 CAN but lost on penalties to Mali in the same stadium, having co-hosted the event with Equatorial Guinea. Uganda – who have never played in a World Cup and have not qualified for an African Nations tournament since the 1970s – began the event positioned 73rd in the FIFA rankings, 35 places higher than Gabon. Success is not an expectation in Libreville. By the following day the Gabonese public seemed to have lost interest in the event. The lack of engagement was no more evident than at the Zimbabwe v Tunisia match that evening. With signs advertising tournament tickets from 90p, we purchased tickets from the cheapest range for our final match, including some spares to give out to young fans living in the vicinity of the stadium.
As it transpired, we could not have paid locals to take them off us, for the stadium and its surroundings were eerily deserted. The food stalls and unofficial merchandising sellers who lined the streets in the hours before previous matches were nowhere to be seen. Everyone who entered the stadium was given a cap and commemorative t-shirt. The stewards were insistent we took two of each. It felt like a betrayal payment for breaking a boycott. Although I am not a ‘crowd scientist’, as some Washington Mall expert observers have recently been described as, I am confident that the official (and suspiciously rounded) attendance figure of 1800 was massaged once again. With hundreds of soldiers in attendance, perhaps in response to the ugly scenes the previous night, together with the various other groups of staff, volunteers, police, stewards, media personnel and national teams, those attending as spectators were certainly outnumbered by those present in official capacities.
In developing countries where the need for expenditure is more pressing in other areas, the arguments against such significant investment in sporting facilities – with all the associated expectations on returns as forms of ‘cooperation’ – began to reverberate around my mind. The notions of development, legacy and sustainability dominated our conversation – and yet we also discussed travel plans for Cameroon’s CAN in 2019. On the wall of my office there is a photo of me stood in the midst of smiling faces in a Ugandan orphanage where I worked in 2004. Next to it is an image of South Africa’s Cape Point where I got engaged to my wife in 2011. Some of my most significant days have been spent in Africa, and being there always makes me want to return. It is by far the most infectious of continents, and the CAN football tournament usually inspires the sense of unfinished business.
After running a sport project in Malawi in October 2014, I was inspired to book a trip to Marrakech for the 2015 CAN. However, Morocco pulled out of hosting the event later that month, citing health concerns relating to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Following a disagreement with CAF Morocco were disqualified, and the event was offered to various potential hosts. Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Sudan and Angola all declined the opportunity to stage the event. Equatorial Guinea were eventually appointed as hosts, despite having been disqualified in the qualifying rounds. There was a CAN television ban in Morocco, and having decided to go there anyway, I found myself in one of the only countries in the world without access to the tournament, and determined the event would not be my last.
Nevertheless, global television audiences of 650m were reported for the 2015 CAN. How these figures compare with Gabon’s event remains to be seen. The cost of the 2017 tournament is said to be $746m, including $3.2m spent on the official mascot (who undertook a pre-tournament tour). Set against this, the French multinational integrated oil and gas company Total agreed a $250m sponsorship deal with the CAN until 2024. Total’s English language advert screened before, after and during the interval of every match declared their “commitment to better energy.” Once again questions were raised about the exploitation of natural resources, the nature and impact of sponsorship agreements, the justification of expenditure for international events and the expectations associated with investments.
The claim might echo through every era of the sport, but change seems to be particularly persistent in modern football mega events. UEFA are trialling dramatic reform for the Euro 2020 event, which will be hosted in thirteen cities in as many countries, and FIFA have announced plans to stage the 2022 World Cup in December before expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026. Football’s governing bodies seem to be instigating and embracing a culture of accelerated change, and CAF tournament organisers must sense a pressure to compete. The showcase event of African football is likely to face challenges in the future – notably relating to corruption, governance, sponsorship, development and infrastructure. Whether the African tournament will continue in the long term as a biannual January competition remains to be seen, although Ivory Coast and Guinea have already been named as hosts of the 2021 and 2023 events respectively. If current trajectories continue, further headlines of ‘Déjà vu’ seem a safe prediction.