Hope that football can eclipse gloom at Africa Cup of Nations

Cote dIvoires Yaya Toure raises the trophy in 2015. Picture: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images
Cote dIvoires Yaya Toure raises the trophy in 2015. Picture: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images
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The news this week that Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football, has been referred to Egyptian prosecutors over allegations of corruption can have come as no great surprise, but it did add to the growing gloom surrounding the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in Libreville on Saturday. The tournament rarely runs smoothly but this one feels benighted even by Cup of Nations standards, while there is an increasing sense that African football as a whole has stagnated.

Hayatou, who is 70 and suffers serious kidney problems, is accused of having failed to open up the tender for the rights to broadcast various African tournaments over the next 12 years when they were awarded to Lagardere Sports in a deal believed to be worth $1 billion. Hayatou has been president of CAF since 1998 and in 2011 was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee over claims he received $20,000 from the now defunct sports marketing company ISL in 1995.

He became president at a time when African football seemed to be developing rapidly. It was only eight years since Cameroon had reached the quarter-final of the World Cup, while Nigeria had won Olympic gold in 1996. In 2000, Cameroon triumphed at the Olympics and two years later Senegal also reached the quarter-final of the World Cup. But although Africa has hosted the World Cup since, it feels no closer to winning it. Those who point to Ghana being denied a place in the 2010 semi-final by Luis Suarez’s handball conveniently ignore the fact that if Serbia had been given a penalty for an almost equally blatant handball against Australia – and converted it – Ghana wouldn’t even have made it out of the group. None of the other five African teams did reach the last 16 and although Nigeria and Algeria got to the knockout stage in Brazil in 2014, neither made the quarter-final.

Nor has Hayatou’s tenure seen significant improvement in terms of organisation or infrastructure. Although much of the chaos that has surrounded the build-up emanates from CAF and its relationship with local organisers, some of the problems cannot be laid at its door.

This tournament should have been held in South Africa, but it swapped with Libya to host the 2013 tournament because of the civil war there.

With the security situation in Libya still untenable, Gabon stepped in for this year. It has the stadiums in Libreville and Franceville that staged games in 2012 when it co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea and new venues have been built in Oyem and Port Gentil, where Lionel Messi attended the ceremonial laying of the first brick. A new stadium in Libreville, on which an estimated $215 million has been spent, won’t be ready on time.

Then there was the unrest that followed elections in August, when the incumbent president Ali Bongo won a narrow victory over Jean Ping. In the street protests that followed, with Ping supporters alleging electoral fraud, at least eight people were killed and hundreds arrested amid a media blackout. Oyem and Port Gentil are both Ping strongholds and there have been suggestions that his supporters will try to use the tournament to publicise their cause. A rally in Paris on Thursday protested about the tournament being held in Gabon at all.

Where there has been progress in African football is in the spread of the game. The pyramid of talent may not be higher than it was 15 years ago, but its base is broader. There is no team to match that great Nigeria of Jay-Jay Okocha, Kanu, Sunday Oliseh et al, or even the robust Cameroon of Rigobert Song, Lauren and Samuel Eto’o, but there are perhaps eight or nine potential winners in Gabon.

The defending champions, Cote d’Ivoire, ended their 23-year wait for the trophy only after half their so-called golden generation had retired.

Solidity was the key for the Ivorians two years ago and that should continue with Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, Den Haag’s Wilfried Kanon and Sunderland’s Lamine Kone all in the squad. Even at their peak, the Ivorians always lacked a little creativity and that is still a significant flaw, which is one of the reasons the coach Michel Dussuyer was so keen to persuade Wilfried Zaha to switch allegiance from England to Cote d’Ivoire.

Algeria were probably the most impressive African side at the last World Cup and they, in Leicester’s Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez and Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, have a forward line that, when it clicks, is capable of devastating opponents, as they proved in crushing a decent Ethiopia 7-1 in qualifying. Since Nigeria’s triumph in South Africa in 2013, though, Algeria have become Africa’s great underachievers. The expectation on this squad has led to tremendous pressure and an unhelpful turnover of managers. The Belgian George Leekens is the latest in the hot seat, having become their fourth manager in a year when he was appointed in October.

Nigeria are not even in Gabon, having finished behind Egypt in a group reduced to three teams by the withdrawal of Chad. It’s Egypt’s first qualification since 2010 when they completed a hat-trick of titles.

This squad is nothing like the quality of that one, but with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny in midfield and Roma’s Mohamed Salah on the flank – as well as the extrovert 43-year-old, Essam El-Hadary, a veteran of those three triumphs, in goal.

Egypt have been in what is probably the toughest group, along with an imposing Mali and Avram Grant’s Ghana, boasting two Ayew brothers, Asamoah Gyan and Baba Rahman but still in danger of failing to deliver on the great promise of the generation that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009. Led by Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, and blessed with a straightforward group, Gabon also have high hopes having lost on penalties to Mali in the quarter-final on home soil five years ago.

All CAF is hoping, meanwhile, is that when the tournament gets going, the football can cut through the clouds that have overshadowed the build-up.