In 1994, Nigeria’s Super Eagles left Tunis with a trophy as continental champions months before debuting at the World Cup in the USA. In spite of a good account of themselves, the team was deprived the opportunity of defending their title two years later in South Africa owing to Sani Abacha’s reservations of Nelson Mandela! South Africa hosted and won her first cup of nations, many argue, because Nigeria was absent. An extended ban also meant that in 1998 in Burkina Faso, an otherwise dwindling Pharaohs of Egypt were back in the habit as African champions. In some déjà vu sense, albeit less political, the Super Eagles missed out on the past two editions of Africa’s elite soccer showpiece only to make a return through qualification on South African soil. In celebration of the team’s qualification for AFCON ’2019, this piece attempts a commemoration of the class of 2013 who conquered the continent in South Africa three nations’ cups ago.
South Africa ’2013 was not the first AFCON to hold barely a year after the previous edition; however it was the first to so hold following CAF’s novel strategy to have the tournament in odd-numbered years as against even-numbered years, to prevent it clashing with years in which the FIFA World Cup takes place. So how did this first odd-numbered year AFCON pan out? We know that the tournament’s overwhelming favorites, Ivory Coast, lost out at the Quarter Final stage to eventual Cup winners, little fancied Nigeria. We know that save the hosts, South Africa, the nations that made it from the groups to the knock-out stage were all West African nations. The hosts will go on to lose, after a spirited display, on penalties to eventual bronze medalists, Mali. From this West African party still, were two notable surprise packages: the Island of Cape Verde making an AFCON debut; and Burkina Faso, the competition’s runners up.
In every sense, these two nations typified Cinderella through the course of the tournament. For debutants Cape Verde, it was a path to glory which began before the AFCON 2013 took off. In qualifying, Cape Verde had eliminated four time AFCON champions, Cameroon, to get to South Africa – by no means an easy feat. Book making pundits reckoned that qualification for the AFCON was a sufficient milestone for the Island of Cape Verde. Such reckoning was further bolstered when Cape Verde was grouped alongside South Africa, Morocco and Angola: “Oh, their inexperience at this level would surely work against them; Morocco and South Africa are past winners of the tourney and Angola’s pedigree from 6 previous appearances must count in their favor. Cape Verde should be content with the company of these countries”. These were the sorts of lines toed by the most astute of pundits. And might one add, “Blah, blah, blah…”?
19th January, 2013: The opening ceremony is over at Soccer city, Johannesburg. President Jacob Zuma has just declared Africa’s football fiesta opened. The continent must shrink into 22 men employing every craft of their art to get the round leather – the Adidas manufactured ‘Katlego’ – in their control and ensure it does their bidding. The ultimate aim of course is to play it into the opposition’s net. That way, a step is taken closer to katlego. ‘Katlego’ means success in Sotho, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. And on this day at the First National Bank Stadium in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, 11 talented South African youths were required to device a means to put katlego behind Cape Verde’s goalkeeper. Alas, at least 105 minutes later, the hosts had failed to rouse the crowd at the Calabash. Cape Verde had held the illustrious hosts to a goalless draw. Not just that, the tiny island actually did stand up to be counted in the course of 90 minutes, giving Bafana Bafana sufficient unease to fear the worst – a loss!
Four days later, at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, the former Portuguese colony of barely over half a million people will take a 36th minute lead against one time AFCON winners, Morocco, before conceding an equalizer late on to earn a respectful draw with another past champion. Cape Verde’s freedom from the shackles of underdog toga was confirmed on the 27th day of this ‘august’ January at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, when Angola, in spite of a first half lead, fell to two brilliantly taken goals in the final ten minutes of the epic encounter. To the amazement of the soccer world, little Cape Verde Island had completed her first leg of AFCON baptism without losing a game! The island had also qualified for the Quarter finals on the same number of points as the hosts and ‘Group A’ winners, South Africa. ‘Group B’ winners, Ghana, were next. At this point, the dark horse account of South Africa ’2013 was complete. Cape Verde had shown that beating Cameroon in the qualifiers was no smoke in the air, after all. They would be filing out at the AFCON 2013 Quarter finals alongside World Cup quarter finalists, four time AFCON champions, and legitimate title contenders, Ghana.
Without doubt, nothing at this stage echoed the following lines from D’banj’s ‘Top of the world’ (2012) – incidentally the AFCON 2013 theme song – better than the Cape Verde example:
I’m on top of the world
In front of the crowd
Smoke in the air!
Look at me now…
The Blue Sharks, Cape Verde’s national football team marshaled by an Air Traffic Controller in Coach Lúcio Antunes were standing up tall for the African youth in every way imaginable and unimaginable. The world certainly took pride and notice with a commensurate standing ovation for the unrelenting spirit of late modernity’s African youth.
Consider too The Stallions of Burkina Faso. A worthy Cinderella run for the team culminated in a truly deserved silver-medal finish. Managed by Belgian coach Paul Put who was handed a three-year suspension in 2007 by the Belgian football union for his alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal, the Burkina Faso story at South Africa ’2013 conveys lessons that cut across old and young. Following his ban, Coach Put had to leave Belgium for Africa where he coached the Gambian national team before being made The Stallions’ manager in Burkina Faso. Coach Put, in a humble and emotional press conference, said of the reversal of his circumstances: “It’s funny. Everyone is turning to me now and calling me from Belgium for radio and television interviews”. Coach Put, an alchemist, spoke of how he took a Burkina Faso team without a single AFCON match victory – save when Burkina Faso hosted in 1998 – in 8 previous appearances from the brink. “You have to find stories that you believe and that the players believe and, of course, that the players believe you believe”, he said.
He was referring to the video clips that guided The Stallions through South Africa ’2013. As part of the team’s preparations, Coach Put had made a selection of videos of putative overachievers in football over the preceding decade to show his players. The first on Greece: in 2004 on their way past France and Portugal to the European title. The second on Chelsea: in the previous season’s UEFA Champions’ League, outwitting the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And of course Zambia: AFCON ‘2012 Cinderella champions who beat mighty Ivory Coast in the final. Following the semi-final win over Ghana, Charles Kabore, a defensive midfielder for Burkina Faso said of Coach Put: “Frankly, the only person who believed in us was the coach. He’s the only one who said we could go to the final…I want to take this opportunity on behalf of all the players to pay tribute to him for everything he’s brought to us and the confidence he’s given us to get us to this point.”
The foregoing is perhaps a glimpse into the togetherness and absence of tears that followed the final match which ended one nil in favor of Nigeria’s Super Eagles. Little-known Sunday Mba had struck for the second Sunday running to effectively send the trophy Abuja’s way. But the Burkinabes proudly picked ‘katlego’ from the net and forged on: they may have lost the final match and AFCON trophy to Nigeria, but that hardly took the shine off a most remarkable tournament where Burkina Faso’s contributions soccer-wise were plentiful and immense. What with Jonathan Pitroipa being named by CAF as the tournament’s best player? The Stallions also rode high with star performances from Alain Traore, Aristide Bance, Daouda Diakite amongst others. Nigeria may have recorded her own Cinderella tale at South Africa ’2013, particularly on considering the largely inexperienced squad assembled by team coach Stephen Keshi and the two decades since he, as Super Eagles Captain, lifted the trophy for Nigeria in 1994. But the true winner at the AFCON 2013 is to be seen in the Cape Verdean demonstration; more so in the graciousness that characterized Burkina Faso’s final match defeat to Nigeria which excellently made for a collective victory gaze. A gaze from which it is easy to see that this was an AFCON of Cinderellas; where the participants were there at their tournament on stadiums of dreams, all from broken fields. They were stronger standing together, and taller on each other’s shoulders. Ultimately, it is our passions as Africans that collectively power the mother continent.