By Joshua Coulson
As the Premier League descends into its biennial debate about the merits of a major international tournament mid-way through a season, all eyes in Africa last week turned towards Bata where hosts Equatorial Guinea face surprise package Libya in the opening match of this year’s African Cup of Nations. It is easy for English football supporters to bemoan the loss of their star players, but let’s turn our eyes for a moment to look at the impact the sport has on the world’s poorest continent. The ACON is often looked down on patronisingly in the UK with the tournament more notorious for poor goalkeeping, administrative nightmares and tragedy rather than high quality football. But what is so often forgotten is the power that this tournament has in Africa – the inspirational stories inspired by sport are so much more potent in countries gripped by poverty or crisis. Mandela spoke of sport having the power to change the world, and the glamour and thrill of the Cup of Nations invokes such passion amongst its vibrant and colourful fans, serving as a valuable distraction in a continent where struggles for basic amenities are commonplace.
Take for example the Libyan passage to qualification, a story so incredible that even Hollywood script writers would have struggled to have written, where a team with few stars names and no competitive football for months qualified in spite of having to play ‘home’ matches in Egypt or Mali as the nation descended into civil war. Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta paid his own way through qualification, without a wage for six months, whilst coping with half the team being unavailable for selection depending on whether Tripoli or Benghazi was under siege (imagine England being forced to play without any London-based players for a match because it was too dangerous to leave the house). And yet, playing in a new kit under a new flag, they qualified against the all the odds and are now a powerful symbol of the new Libya. Their three Group A matches will be a positive distraction for a nation that is slowly recovering from the Gaddafi regime.
And the tournament itself is likely to be the most open and exciting to date. There are three debutants in this year, the most since 1972 (hosts Equatorial Guinea along with Niger and Botswana). With eight of the last nine winners failing to qualify, including seven time winners Egypt and the West African powerhouses Cameroon and Nigeria, the strength in depth of African football is evident. With global coverage, young players will be looking to book a move to Europe and the quality of African football is getting better all the time.
Relatively speaking, the impact on the Premier League will actually be quite small this year. Remarkably, only 11 players from England will be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea (compared to 34 who went to Ghana in 2008), but there are some big names to look out for. Alan Pardew will be hoping to see new signing Papiss Demba Cisse combine well with Demba Ba for Senegal, justifying his Demba-Demba experiment (as opposed to Ferguson’s failed Djemba-Djemba trial), whilst Chelsea will miss Drogba and Man City will be depleted without the Toure brothers. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans will probably be glad to see the back of Chamakh and Gervinho for a few weeks, and Kalou will hardly be a big miss at Stamford Bridge.
This African Cup of Nations is set to be the most exciting yet. As an entire continent looks forward to seeing some of the world’s best players back at home I for one am eagerly anticipating the colour, vibrancy and excitement of the menagerie of Lions, Crocodiles, Panthers, Eagles, Zebras and Elephants descending on West Africa this month. This is a tournament for Africa, but we are all fortunate enough to be able to enjoy it too and share in this celebration of the power of football.