Monday, April 30, 2007

2010 World Cup: South Africa, USA or England?


I'm back from my vacation and read some disheartening news upon arrival. Maybe I won't be going to South Africa after all. Should I book my tickets for England, Spain or stay here at home in New York?

There goes the premise of the blog ... '2010 World Cup: The Bronx' doesn't have the same ring to it.

Seems that FIFA president Sepp Blatter (left, waving at South Africa as he gives the World Cup tournament to England) has let the world know that if South Africa isn't prepared to host the 2010 World Cup, contingency plans are in place.

"Definitely we have a possibility to go somewhere else if something happens," said Blatter while eating some endangered animal meat.

"It was the same case in Germany. Something can happen. A natural catastrophe or whatever, a big change in society - everybody against football.

"But then for the time being the plan B is South Africa and the plan C we definitely must have a possibility to go somewhere else, but it must be a natural catastrophe."

I don't know about you but I wish Mr. Blatter would be quiet.

I understand that everyone needs contingencies, back-up plans, an extra tire in the trunk of the car. You never know what's going to happen and you better be prepared.

But do we have to talk about it so much?

The 2010 World Cup is a huge source of pride for not only South Africa but the entire continent. As mentioned in a previous post, South Africa is feverishly working on many projects, trying to get the massive job of staging this tournament correct.

Blatter's comments can't do much for morale and spirit. The people are working, the stadiums are going up, the infrastructure will be built. Give them something positive to go on, not words of condemnation.

As reader Shyam Sundar says: 'Heard that FIFA is evaluating alternative options in case South Africa is not prepared for 2010 World Cup. I think that would be really tragic if and when FIFA decided to name another country.

I hope for the sake of the beautiful game and for the African continent the World Cup is held in South Africa.

It would unearth more talent, improve infrastructure and more importantly give hope to the millions of impoverished people in Africa that the world, for once, is revolving around them for all the right reasons.'

I couldn't agree more.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Wedding and a Break

I'm off to an all-important wedding of a friend in North Carolina, far from the manic streets & hustle and bustle of New York City.

Also, quite removed from the machinations of the football world.

So no posts until I return Monday, with more ruminations and opinions about the fascinating world of African football and my journey in it.

Until then, take care and watch some football.

And please, make some comments and tell me more about what you see ...

Asante sana!!! Kwaheri!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ready Or Not: South Africa Prepares for 2010


An interesting article appeared in this Monday's New York Times about South Africa's preparations for the 2010 World Cup.

The article speak about the troubles the African nation is experiencing in getting itself ready for the world's biggest sporting competition.

The infrastructure of the country needs to be either built up or renovated (airports, stadiums, trains, etc.). Time is of the essence, as organizers race against the clock to get everything done. (Above, a sketch of Durban Stadium, one of the proposed sites of the 2010 World Cup)

Here's a small quote: 'A giant race is on to renovate airports, build a high-speed rail link from Johannesburg’s airport to the suburbs and erect or renovate stadiums here (in Johannesburg) and in eight other cities. Thousands of new police officers must be hired and trained; hundreds of buses purchased; an untold number of bed-and-breakfast inns rated and registered. It is at once nerve-racking and exhilarating, South Africa’s own slow-motion, nail-biting contest with itself.'

Any delay in getting the infrastructure ready could doom some of the projects. As the article says, the timetable for building some stadiums is so tight that even a three-week rain delay could wreak havoc.

Crime is also an issue. South Africa experiences close to 50 murders a day; some 700 assaults. Who is going to want to go there for a good time with this hanging over them? Police officers are being hired and trained at a startling clip. The article states that 11,000 new officers are being hired every year. The dedication is there.

South Africa needs to get this right, not just for the country. An entire continent's hopes rest on the effort and end result of World Cup 2010.

As Jofta Rishoto of Soweto said in the article, 'The World Cup is empowering our country, our people. You are going to see miracles.'

Let's hope so.

(To the left, a jubilant Nelson Mandela with the World Cup trophy. I love how happy he looks!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Focus


Over on my other blog, I'm shifting focus a little, trying to be more original with a topic I'm familiar with.

African football is not my strong suit. I'm in the process of learning, trying to read as much as I can, educating myself before I go out there.

Unfortunately, I find that with my limited time, I'm simply regurgitating articles I find on the Internet, not offering enough opinion or insight.

So I'm shifting focus some.

There'll be times where I'll cut and copy something I find interesting. I want to share the wonderful world of African football with all of you.

But in doing that, I'll offer more insight, more of my commentary in the text.

What I really need to do is hop on a plane and just go to Africa. Unfortunately, I can't do that at the moment. But in due time, all comes to those who are patient. If you'll be patient with me, you'll be rewarded with some 'hard-hitting' journalism about the Beautiful Game in Africa.

I don't want to lose sight of what I'm trying to accomplish here.
Ultimately, my goal with this blog is to get to South Africa and the 2010 Final game. I'm spreading the word, getting people interested, hoping to make my way there, by hook or crook.

What I'd love to do is help someone out along the way. Have a charity to support and raise money for, create awareness through the game of football, write about some of the wonderful people I encounter along the way, share my experiences in what I'm learning is a complex, beautiful, misunderstood continent.

And maybe I can learn to write along the way (that was quite a run-on sentence before).

And maybe, just maybe I can get into the World Cup Final.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Al Ahly Turns 100


Let's stop for a moment and celebrate the longevity and drive of Africa's most successful franchise, Egypt's Al Ahly. With 99 championships in their trophy cabinet, they deserve their distinction as one of the most revered clubs in world football.

Al Ahly turns 100 this week and celebrates by hosting European champions Barcelona in a friendly.

"The club will play a game against FC Barcelona on Tuesday, which will be the highlight of a series of celebrations spanning an entire year," Sherif Seif al-Nasr, the club official in charge of centennial celebrations, said.

Ahly's main goal this season is to win a 32nd Egyptian league triumph, a likely prospect as striker Mohammed Aboutrika and his men have already opened up a 12-point gap at the top of the table.

That would provide the icing on the cake all the fans are hoping for, bringing the club its 100th piece of silverware in its centenary season.

After winning its second consecutive African Champions League trophy last year and clinching an unprecedented third spot in the intercontinental cup, Ahly has been in unstoppable form of late.

Ahly boasts around 100,000 members and a fan base estimated at 50 million, making it the most popular club in Egypt, despite its bitter rivalry with Zamalek and the largest club on the continent.

The "African club of the century" was founded on April 24, 1907 by Omar Lutfi Bey, a senior official who wanted a purely national club to counter British dominance of the country, which extended to sports.

"Ahly's victories, especially the early ones against the British, strengthened a feeling of national pride," said Sadek, whose three-piece history on Ahly is to be released in August.

Ahly sporting club has since produced the country's finest athletes, many of whom became the first Egyptians and often the first Africans to win international competitions.

The football club has had its share of heroes throughout the years, but all eyes Tuesday will be on striker Aboutrika (pictured, right), whose classy playmaking and ruthless goal scoring skills have earned him the nickname of "smiling assassin".

Red flags have started adorning balconies and cars in Cairo and the rest of the country ahead of the Barcelona game.

The national club kept its colors even when the country's flag switched to green in 1924 after independence.

The club experienced a dry patch in the late 1960s to early 1970s but otherwise has dominated national football for much of its existence, together with bitter Cairo foes Zamalek.

"The club has only two weaknesses: a limited budget which currently doesn't exceed $26 million and limited fame in the West," Sadek said.

That might change after the friendly Tuesday.

Let's stand up and cheer for a true beacon of not just African football
but world football. Congratulations on your centenary.

Friday, April 20, 2007

African Champions League Update


Al Ahly keep doing it ...
Just when they look dead & buried, they strike and surprise everyone.

Al Ahly of Egypt are through to the group stages of the African Champions League after beating Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa 2-0 in Cairo on Friday.
The victory at the Cairo International Stadium in the second leg of the third-round tie gave the holders a 4-2 aggregate victory.

Ahly had the upper hand throughout, but fans waited until the 69th minute for the opening goal, a penalty converted by captain Shady Mohamed.
The penalty was awarded after Mohamed Barakat was brought down by a Sundowns defender.

With ten minutes remaining, a shot from the edge of the penalty box by Mohamed Aboutraika sealed Ahly's progression to the last eight of the competition.

Earlier in the day, Algeria's JS Kabylie scored a stoppage-time winner to ensure their progress to the group phase with a 2-0 win over Cotonsport of Cameroon.

For more information on this weekend’s fixtures, please go to the Confederation of African Football's Champions League website.

The Art of Football & Why We Keep Watching

Football's often compared to a symphony or a fine painting.

It's complex and hard to grasp at times, like a piece from Bach, a sketch by Rembrandt or a novel by James Joyce.
But it's accessible and easy to see it's beauty. Anyone can watch a Shakespeare play and see it's beauty, even if we don't understand every word or sentence uttered.
Football's enduring beauty is its universal appeal. Most anyone can pick up a ball, begin to play & hear notes, words and sentences beginning to be uttered.

The subtlety of the game is what gives the sport its deceptive artistic quality. It sneaks up on you, comes out of nowhere to wow you, to dazzle you, to give you goosebumps. It can take the form of a 0-0 tie, where all there is to appreciate is a defensive stop, a flick of the wrist to deny the ball entry to the net.

Or it can be the genius of Zidane or the majesty of a goal like Lionel Messi's the other night, that reminds us of why we love this game, why we still watch day in and day out.

Marcela Mora y Araujo, writing in the Guardian, had this great quote in her article today about art and football: 'football is an art form in and of itself. It has all the ingredients of the narrative of any good novel, play or film. It provides the same mesmerising sense of wonder of ballet, dance, or music. It has the rhythm of poetry. When other art forms attempt to do something about football, it tends not to work, because football is the thing itself. Tolstoy said "that the activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it".

By far the most spirit lifting, life-enhancing artistic expression I've seen in a long time arrived this week courtesy of a 19-year-old currently playing for Barcelona. Leo Messi's goal, ladies and gentleman: art at its finest.'


That's why I keep going back.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Greatest Goal I've Ever Seen ... and the African CL!


Wow ... that's all I can say ... wow ...

The goal by Argentinian mastermind Lionel Messi of Barcelona (pictured left, with the Greatest Ever, Diego Maradona) last night against Getafe has my mouth agape, my chest heaving, my skin full of goosebumps ...

What a goal! THIS is why I'm in love with the Beautiful Game ... THIS is why I'm trying to do all this ... moments like this, they're worth the wait.

Watch this comparison of his goal to Maradona's spectacular effort against England in the '86 World Cup, considered the Greatest Goal Ever.

What do you think?

Quite similar. Both brilliant efforts. Both stunning moments.
There's something special about Messi ...
**********

Don't forget this weekend is the 2nd leg of 3rd-round matches in the African Champions League. Unfortunately, I won't be able to watch, as I have prior commitments, but they should be intriguing. Below is a list of the games ...

(WOW! What a GOAL!!!)

African Champions League third round, second leg fixtures this weekend (first leg results in parenthesis):

Friday
In Algiers: JS Kabylie (Algeria) v Coton Sport (Cameroon) (0-1)
In Cairo: Al Ahli (Egypt) v Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa) (2-2)
In Omdurman: Al Hilal (Sudan) v Nasarawa United (Nigeria) (0-3)

Saturday:
In Mwanza: Young Africans (Tanzania) v Esperance (Tunisia) (1-4)
In Rabat: Royal Armed Forces (Morocco) v TP Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo) (0-1)
In Sousse: Etoile Sahel (Tunisia) v Maranatha Fiokpo (Togo) (0-0)

Sunday:
In Casablanca: Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) v ASEC Abidjan (Ivory Coast) (0-2)
In Tripoli: Al Ittihad (Libya) v Etoile du Congo (Congo) (1-3)

Winners qualify for the group phase of the Champions League, starting in June.

Losers proceed to the fourth round of the African Confederation Cup.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pele's in Trouble


Three-time African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele is in a world of trouble.

The Ghanian superstar and former European Cup winner was among officials and players from four clubs banned after two high scoring matches in the race for promotion to Ghana's premier league last month.

He’s appealing against a one-year suspension handed to him last week in this match fixing case.

Abedi Pele's club FC Nania won 31-0 over Okwawu United while rivals Great Mariners were 28-0 winners over Mighty Jets in results deemed by the Ghana Football Association to have been fixed. The association last week demoted all four clubs to Ghana's third division and fined them $20,000 each.

FC Nania, set up by the former Olympique Marseille player less than a decade ago, were seeking to reach the top flight of Ghana football for the first time.

Abedi Pele, who is an ambassador for South Africa's hosting of the 2010 World Cup finals, said he would seek to clear his name.

"I will go wherever I can to get justice as we have been banned on conjecture," Pele told BBC Sport.

"There was no evidence that before, during or after the match, the officials of Okwahu United and myself and/or any of my officials engaged in any form of discussion or even camaraderie - nor did any such thing ever take place," he said in a statement.

"What then did we do wrong?"

"The only possible accusation is that my team scored more goals.

"And if that is the case, my contention is that while the scoreline may raise eyebrows, it does not point to an irrefutable conclusion that the match was fixed.

"At the height of my career and even that of Maradona or the legendary Pele, it is very possible to record that score against a team featuring six players and a seventh in goal who is not a natural goalkeeper." (Nania’s opponents Okwawu played with seven men due to injuries occurring in the match.)

"Scorelines in football may be baffling but cannot be the basis for judging a match as fixed," the 1982 African Nations Cup winner emphasized.

He used last week's Champions League game when England's Manchester United destroyed AS Roma of Italy 7-1 to explain his point.

"The recent score between Manchester United and Roma could have recorded a cricket score if Roma had been reduced to seven men.”

*Scandal & corruption seem to be everywhere in the world of African football. It's too early to say for sure if Pele was involved in these shenanigans. If he was, he deserves to stay away from the game for a very long time. Match-fixing hits at the integrity of the game, the pureness of it. Once that's gone, what's left? A farce, like professional wrestling. A carnival.

FIFA would be right to step in here, study the issue and see what they can do to rid the African game of this nuisance. This needs to stop somewhere.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

It's Not Just The Men

I'm back & not rested in the least ...
But I strive to make these African dreams come true, whining as much as possible along the way.

Strange weeks abound in the world of football, with Manchester United and Chelsea playing in a league of their own, vying for three separate titles possibly in the span of one week. The FA Cup Final at Late Wembley is set, the Champions League Final in Athens is a step away and the Premiership Super Bowl looks like a league decider, all in one week.
In France it's all decided (Lyon again), it's all over in Italy (Inter Milan) and in Spain it's all left to play for (Barca, Madrid, Valencia, the New York Yankees, Pumas, Real Zaragoza, Sevilla, Cesar's Playstation Team, etc.)

So while the stars of European club football duke it out to the finish, we turn our heads to Africa, where burgeoning football talents make their mark on the game.
It's not just Didier Drogba & Michael Essien that make African football so exciting.
It's also the women of the game, as evidenced by three African players being invited to join a Women's World XI to face China in a friendly on Saturday.

Nigerian striker Cynthia Uwak, Ghana's Adjoa Bayor and South African midfielder Portia Modise were named in the 18-member squad.

The game will take place in the Chinese city of Wuhan on the eve of the launch and draw of the Women's World Cup to be staged in the Asian country in September.

The trio will join up with reigning World Player of the Year, Marta of Brazil and three-time German winner of the award, Birgit Prinz, who are special guests at the event.

"I am very happy to be given my first call to the World XI team," Adjoa Bayor told BBC Sport.

"Playing with the world class players will give me the needed exposure to excel at the World Cup in September."

Ghana and Nigeria are the two African representatives at the World Cup in September.

Very cool to see it's not just the men who are defining the game in Africa, but the women. We'll be following the exploits of Ghana and Nigeria in the Women's World Cup.

*On another note, Goal.com has started a series documenting African footballer's trajectories through various European leagues. In this edition, they feature Africans in Spain, with usual suspects Samuel Eto'o and Frederic Kanoute profiled. But they do nicely with their work on Cameroon's Pierre Webó of Osasuna, Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid & Mali and Felix Dja Ettien of Levante & Ivory Coast. Well worth a look and something to follow in the coming weeks.

*This just in from Reuters: The Democratic Republic of Congo have set April 29 as the new date for their postponed African Nations Cup qualifier against Ethiopia at Kinshasa's Martyrs stadium, the country's football association said on Tuesday.

The match was postponed last month after clashes between government forces and opposition militia in the Congolese capital killed some 600 people.

The Confederation of African Football at the weekend ordered the match to go ahead even though it falls outside FIFA's co-ordinated international calendar and makes it difficult for the Congolese to call up their foreign-based players.

DR Congo go into the Group 10 match with four points from their opening two qualifiers for the 2008 final, seeking to qualify for a ninth successive Nations Cup finals.

Ethiopia, who have won one of their opening qualifiers, have not been to the tournament since 1982.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Update on the Kenya-FIFA situation

An update on the situation brewing between Kenya and FIFA:

It's just getting worse.

The Kenyan Football Federation (KFF) will legally challenge the formation of an independent committee to oversee the sport in the country.

Sammy Obingo, KFF secretary, criticized officials in the government who accepted the formation of the group and vowed to fight on. FIFA has asked Kenya's government to stay away from overseeing the sport. Kenya was suspended from international football because of failure to fulfill a 28-point agreement reached in Cairo last year which called mainly for scrapping of parallel bodies managing the sport.

"We intend to challenge the legality of this new body in the courts," he said.

The new government faction has been widely panned by world football's governing body FIFA, and could lead to the imposition of another international ban for Kenya if they take control.

The embattled KFF have only recently been re-admitted to international football after a five-month ban imposed by FIFA because of previous government interference.

"There are so many glaring discrepancies," Obingo said confirming they would go to court next week.

Now the courts are getting involved. It's just getting more complicated. The government needs to take a backseat and allow the sport to be run by duly elected football officials.

The interference needs to stop so the country can continue their qualifications campaigns, their grassroots efforts and their unity. All this strife causes nothing but hardship for the people trying to do good for the game.

Such a shame, really. I wonder why the government is so committed to meddling with the game? What's in it for them?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kenya facing new FIFA sanctions


It never ends with these guys.

Kenya's football federation is again facing the threat of suspension by FIFA, football's world governing body, because of renewed allegations of political interference by the country's government.

The government announced plans to set up a "caretaker committee" to run the federation. Apparently, this is a no-no for FIFA.

"This is unbelievable," Jerome Champagne, FIFA's presidential delegate for special affairs, said in an e-mail to the Confederation of African Football, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters News Service (thanks, Reuters).

"I discussed this issue this morning again with the FIFA president and he is furious that once again, a governmental structure (the sports commissioner and the registrar's office) intervened again in this matter in spite of all statements.

"Mr. Blatter (Sepp, FIFA's head honcho) even mentioned a new suspension to be brought to the FIFA congress."

Kenya was banned from all international competitions last October for breaking international agreements and for numerous problems within its federation. The ban was lifted last month but with conditions attached, including non-interference by the Kenyan government and the withdrawal of pending legal proceedings.

Where do we go from here? Does it ever end? Someone needs to sit down and mediate this mess. It's gotten out of hand already and arbitration seems to be the only remedy. FIFA strong arms, Kenya doesn't comply. Who is at fault? The ministers of the game, the government or FIFA?

Check back for more updates on this debilitating situation.

Tidbits to Pass the Time


It's been a few days & I'm not one to whine. Ok, yes I am, as evidenced by this post from a month ago, but I'm tired and heartbroken (more on that later, or go here & see why).

I just need to hop on a plane and go to Africa, right? Am I right? Someone tell me I'm right ... ok, enough! I'm sorry about that. Back to the topic at hand ...

Take a look at this guy on the left. He's a super fan from Kenya. His name is Isaac Juma Onyango & he's one of the most passionate supporters I've ever seen.

He's a newspaper vendor by day. By mid day, he transforms into an informal mascot for the Harambee Stars national team. Dressed like a traditional healer, with his body painted from head to toe and carrying a calabash, he stages colorful dances throughout every one of the Harambee Star's home games in an attempt to spur on the side.

Whenever a goal is scored he joins the fans in celebrating, contorting his bare-chested body as he entertains the spectators.

It is believed by many that he brings luck to the side, as Kenya have won more games than lost when the self-appointed mascot has been present.

As a result when he is seen at the stadium everybody expects a positive result.

"I do it because I love football so much. I can hardly miss an international match anywhere in the country," Juma told the BBC.

"That's why I have chosen to do it at my own expense.

"First of all, I have to buy my own paint, then pay the person to decorate me all over my body.

"That is not to mention the barber who shaves me before I go to the field."

To read more about this interesting fellow, please go here.

-- Ya, ya. I promised not to talk about Valencia on here anymore. .But it's relevant this time, I swear.
First, Ghana's Michael Essien (right) is the man who broke my heart. Great goal by a great player. 'Nuff said. Go to my other blog to read more about that.

On another note, Chelsea manager 'The Special One' Jose Mourinho made some interesting comments after the game about Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo. Why is this relevant? Well, The Special One wants him back at Chelsea (he's on loan at Inter Milan & doesn't want to come back to London) because he needs a striker in January when Didier Drogba & Salomon Kalou leave for the African Cup of Nations (see how I tied that together?).

"I can understand the human side of Crespo's story, but business is business," Mourinho sneered to The Sun.
"Crespo is ours and I need a striker. I'm sure I will lose Drogba and Kalou who will go to play in the African Cup of Nations and so I need a striker like Crespo to be at Chelsea," the Special One said as he looked at his image in the mirror.

The Cup's traditional January start time irks many people & could have an adverse personal effect on Crespo, who's indicated he doesn't want to come back to London due to cultural issues. I wonder how many other clubs will have this problem?

-- On a final note, South Africa is trying to forge bonds with other African nations ahead of the 2010 Cup. They're seeking a change in World Cup rules to allow visiting teams to be based in neighbouring countries like Mozambique and Swaziland during the 2010 finals.

Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the South African organizing committee, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that other African countries should be involved as much as possible in Africa's first World Cup finals.

"This is Africa's World Cup and we are making a case to FIFA for a change in the rules," he said.

Under existing rules, the 31 visiting teams can set up training camps outside the host country before the finals but would have to move to South Africa at least seven days before their opening match and remain there during the tournament.

The moves sound like a nice idea and one that could ease SA's pressure to accomodate fans as well, as many would follow their teams to these other base countries, which are a short plane ride away from SA.

Jordaan said he expected some 350,000 to 450,000 overseas visitors and fans for the finals. He also said measures would be put in place to ensure local soccer fans, especially those from the townships, would not be priced out of the World Cup.
"There will be affordable tickets. There are many people who have supported the game for many years and they must have access to the event. FIFA understands this," he said.

Jordaan said Africa's first World Cup had to be a successful event. "We cannot afford to fail," he said. "It is in everyone's interest for this to be a success and we are going to work very hard to make it happen."

Monday, April 9, 2007

African Champions League Update


I didn't get a chance to see any African Champions League games this weekend. I couldn't find a place in New York City that showed the matches, but I may (*may*) have found a few spots to see the 2nd legs when they come. More on that later.

On a culinary note, I did make it out to a South African restaurant in Brooklyn for brunch yesterday. It's called Madiba and it's supposed to be the real deal. The food was good and I wholeheartedly recommend it if you're in the city. Looks like I have something to look forward to when I get out to SA food wise (when I go? Ok, if i go! No, no ... when!).

So what happened this weekend in Africa's Champions League?
Well, here's what my sources tell me (ok, what BBC and the CAF website tell me)...

South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns staged a remarkable comeback to snatch a 2-2 draw with holders Al Ahly in Pretoria.

Mohamed Barakat marked his return from a long-standing injury to score a vital away goal for the Egyptians.

Midfielder Barakat, voted the competition's best player two years ago, opened the scoring for Ahly after 28 minutes.

His Angolan team mate Flavio extended the lead with a stunning long-range goal ten minutes after the interval.

Sundowns clawed their way back with headers from full back Oscar Ntwagae and Venezuela international Jose Torrealba in the last quarter-hour. Ahly were on the verge of securing a 2-1 victory till the 89th minute when the Venezuelan born striker pulled even for the South Africans.

Portuguese coach of Al Ahly, Jose Manuel attributed his team's inability to carry the day to the loss of concentration by his players during the latter stages of the game. "My players weren't at their best and they lost concentration during the last 20 minutes which cost us a lot," he said.

But his counterpart, Gordon Igesund pointed fingers at luck for the result, despite fighting back from two goals.
"With more luck we could have won this game. We created a lot of chances. Anyway we have a second chance and we will have to go to Egypt to win."

Though he could not end the unbeaten run of the defending African champions, he said, "It’s in our hands and I think we proved to ourselves that they can easily be beaten."

Should be an exciting second leg.

In other action, Ghana's Abdul Nafiu Iddrisu scored both goals as ASEC of Ivory Coast beat Morocco's Wydad Casablanca 2-0 in the Champions League Sunday in Abidjan.

ASEC, gallant semi-finals losers to eventual champions Al Ahly of Egypt last year, entered the first leg of the final round qualifier under fire from coach Patrick Liewig.

The Frenchman, who watched from a stand at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium due to a four-match CAF ban, slammed the poor finishing and teamwork of ASEC in recent matches.

Democratic Republic of Congo side TP Mazembe beat FAR Rabat of Morocco 1-0 in another third round matchup.

The home side won the match thanks to a second half penalty converted by midfielder Alain Kaluyituka Tioko.

Mazembe were forced to play their home tie in the capital because of the ban imposed last year by CAF on their home ground in Lubumbashi.

Here's a rundown of the scores from around the continent:

In Abidjan: ASEC Abidjan (Ivory Coast) v Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) 2-0

In Brazzaville: Etoile du Congo (Congo) v Al Ittihad (Libya) 3-1

In Garoua: Coton Sport (Cameroon) v JS Kabylie (Algeria) 1-0

In Kinshasa: TP Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo) v Royal Armed Forces (Morocco) 1-0

In Lafia: Nasarawa United (Nigeria) v Al Hilal (Sudan) 3-0

In Wome: Maranatha Fiokpo (Togo) v Etoile Sahel (Tunisia) 0-0

In Tunisia: Esperance (TUN) 3-0 Young Africans (TAN)

In Pretoria: Mamelodi Sundowns (RSA) 2-2 Ahly (EGY)

Return matches are scheduled for the weekend of April 20-22 with the eight winners split into two groups and the losers entering the second-tier Confederation Cup.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Coming Soon: More African Players in Europe?


We might be seeing more African players streaming into Europe in the near future.

According to news reports, some Scandinavian clubs are looking into the implementation of an agreement to enable them to use more players from the continent.

The Cotonou Agreement was signed in 2000 between the European Union (EU) and the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) States. ACP countries include all African nations south of the Sahara.

The agreement says that citizens of ACP countries who are legally employed in the EU should be free from any form of discrimination based on nationality.

Rules in most European leagues prevent clubs from fielding more than three non-EU players per game. This has prevented clubs from signing more African players.

But Randers FC have recently succeeded in forcing the Danish Football Association (DBU) to adjust its rules.

The DBU is now in line with the trade agreement, thus enabling Randers to use their four African squad players in a single game.

Now Swedish Premiership contenders Helsingborgs (logo, above right) are calling on their country's governing body to respect the trade agreement to enable them use five Africans in a match.

"We are only asking the Swedish Football Association (SFA) to follow the Cotonou Agreement because the Danish FA has done a similar thing," Helsingborg's sports director Bo Nilsson told BBC Sport.

"Even individual players who feel that they are not being treated justly could go to the European Court crying discrimination."

Helsingborgs are threatening court action.

The move by Helsingborgs could compel federations in the EU, such as England, Spain, Italy and Holland, to adjust their laws.

But the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement in Denmark has been severely criticised by the coach of the national team Morten Olsen, who says the influx of foreigners could harm the development of native talent.

Olsen wants a system to be introduced like a Norwegian agreement which demands that clubs have at least eight locally-trained squad members.

"This would be an arrangement which everyone should welcome," said Olsen.

"We need bullet-proof rules in this area."

But the clubs disagree as players from Africa tend to be cheaper than their local counterparts.

"My contract says nothing about helping develop players for the Danish national team." Aalborg BK sporting director Lynge Jacobsen said.

This is a two-sided issue. On one hand, Africans filter into Europe, unimpeded by their nationalities and further their football abilities while making some good cash. On the other hand, this 'cheap talent' waters down development of national teams around Europe and there's a backlash, an informal collusion against Africans.

I'm all for the Africans coming into Europe. It would be great for the African game. What I don't want is a backlash because of the number of Africans playing in Europe.

Then again, it's not like Brazilians get this backlash effect. There are literally hundreds playing in Europe, especially in Germany. Not to forget Argentinians and many other South Americans. Many become citizens of their adopted countries. Mauro Camoranesi (pictured, right) is a naturalized Italian born in Argentina who helped his adopted Italy win the 2006 World Cup. Many players do this to bypass EU laws and play for their clubs.


There's an argument brewing in England that the national team is suffering because of an influx of foreign players. Look at a club like Arsenal, who regularly fields a starting eleven sans an Englishman. The argument might be true, I'm not sure.
It's a step that could significantly further the game in Africa. Or it could impede it. Time will tell.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

African Champions League


This weekend brings the return of the Champions League to Africa's shores.
No, not the popular version played this week in Europe. The continental version, complete with powerhouse teams and Cinderella stories.
Here's a recap.

The first intriguing match up sees holders Al Ahly visiting Mamelodi Sundowns in Pretoria, South Africa on Saturday. Al Ahly are 5-time winners of the competition and are facing a red-hot Sundowns squad.
The “reds” have a daunting task with a trip to the Loftus Stadium as guests of the “Brazilians” of South African football in their quest for a place in the last eight.

Coach Manuel Jose said the Egyptian club had no plans to go on the defensive against the South African hosts who have won their last 10 league matches.

"It might sound arrogant but it is our philosophy to play the same way away from home as we do at home and that is to try and win every game we play," said the Portuguese, who has led Al Ahly to three Champions League victories, including the last two tournaments.
"We accept it is going to be very tough to qualify," he added.

Al Ahly are among seven past winners of the continent's top club prize who compete in the third round this weekend.

ASEC Abidjan of the Ivory Coast and Wydad Casablanca are set for a similar heavyweight battle in their meeting in Abidjan on Sunday. Both former winners go into the game on the back of strong domestic form.

TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco's Royal Armed Forces are also two ex-continental champions pitted against each other in the first leg in Kinshasa on Sunday.

Mazembe are being forced to play in the capital because of a ban imposed last year by the Confederation of African Football on their home ground in Lubumbashi, where opposing teams have often been attacked by home fans and where the field is barely grassed.

Mazembe's move to Kinshasa leaves them with little fan support and the club are admitting spectators to the Martyrs stadium on Sunday in a bid to gain some public backing during their game against the soldiers.

Tunisia's Esperance host Young Africans of Tanzania in Tunis on Friday while JS Kabylie of Algeria are away in Garoua against Cameroon's Coton Sport on Sunday.

Here's a list of all the games. Try to check them out. You'll be surprised at the quality of the football.

Friday, April 6:
In Tunis: Esperance (Tunisia) v Young Africans (Tanzania)
Saturday, April 7:
In Johannesburg: Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa) v Al Ahli (Egypt)
Sunday, April 8:
In Abidjan: ASEC Abidjan (Ivory Coast) v Wydad Casablanca (Morocco)
In Brazzaville: Etoile du Congo (Congo) v Al Ittihad (Libya)
In Garoua: Coton Sport (Cameroon) v JS Kabylie (Algeria)
In Kinshasa: TP Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo) v Royal Armed Forces (Morocco)
In Lafia: Nasarawa United (Nigeria) v Al Hilal (Sudan)
In Wome: Maranatha Fiokpo (Togo) v Etoile Sahel (Tunisia)
The return legs will be played on the weekend of April 20-22.

Also this weekend we see the return of the African Confederations Cup. The Cup is the merging of the African Cup Winners' Cup and the CAF Cup with the national Cup winner for each country automatically qualifying.

The 12 countries with the best results in the club competitions in the previous five years are also allowed to enter a second team, normally the third-placed finisher in the national league championship. (The league runner-up qualifies for the more lucrative Champions League).

Both competitions, the Champions League and the Confederation Cup, start with a maximum of 64 teams. The eight teams who are knocked out from the Last 16 stage of the Champions League are then integrated into the Confederation Cup and play, in a direct elimination round after a drawing, against the last eight in the Confederation Cup. The eight remaining teams are then divided into two groups of four with the group winners going directly to the final.

It's sort of like the UEFA Cup of Africa, similar in rules and prestige.
Here's the fixture list for this weekend's 3rd round, first-leg ties:

Friday, April 6:
In Kigali: Atraco (Rwanda) v EGS Gafsa (Tunisia)
Saturday, April 7:
In Abidjan: Issia Wazi (Ivory Coast) v CS Sfaxien (Tunisia)
In Luanda: Benfica Luanda (Angola) v Astres Douala (Cameroon)
In Ouagadougou: Etoile Filante (Burkina Faso) v Mwana Africa (Zimbabwe)
Sunday, April 8:
In Chlef: ASO Chlef (Algeria) v Al Merreikh (Sudan)
In Douala: Union Douala (Cameroon) v Kwara United (Nigeria)
In Ismailia: Ismaili (Egypt) v Green Buffaloes (Zambia)
In Port Harcourt: Dolphin FC (Nigeria) v Hassania Agadir (Morocco)
The return legs will be played on the weekend of April 16-18.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Stinging Criticisms by Eto'o


This goes up with some of the sadder things I've seen regarding football.
To think we live in a day and age where racism's talons still cause people strife and agony bewilders.

One of the more talented footballers of the modern era, Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o said he does not take his children to football matches because of racist attitudes in the stadiums. Think about this: one of the most talented strikers in the world, playing for one of the best teams in history, doesn't allow his kids to watch him play live. That's beyond comprehension.

"It is something that has affected me personally," Eto'o told sports newspaper Marca.

"I think players, leaders, and the media should join forces to stop this.

"In the stands you hear things that are difficult to explain to a child. It is better they are not exposed to this."

Eto'o continued: "No-one should feel looked-down upon because of the color of their skin, so at this moment in time I prefer my children don't go to football matches."

Last season Eto'o threatened to walk off the pitch after being racially abused by fans in a match at Real Zaragoza's stadium (pictured below, right). Zaragoza were fined an insignificant amount of money after the incident by the Spanish Football Federation.

A number of other La Liga clubs, including Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Racing Santander and Getafe, have been fined over the last two years after fans directed racist abuse at visiting players.

The Spanish government has committed itself to taking a hard line on racism in football, after a rise in the number of incidents of abuse directed at players in recent seasons.

I love La Liga as much as anyone else. Read my blog long enough or know me personally and you'll know my love of Valencia, the city and the club.

But this strikes at the heart and has to do with so much more than the love of the game, the club or the culture. This is, plain and simple, wrong.

The man can't share his joy, his talents with his family. They have to stay away because fascist factions taunt and intimidate, throwing bananas on the field or bellowing monkey noises at him and other players of color.

No one should have to go through this. It's one of the sadder parts of the game, up there with stadium violence.

England's successfully curbed this attitude (to a degree) in their stadiums. But what to do in mainland Europe?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Rethinking the African Cup of Nations?


The African Cup of Nations is the premier footballing competition in Africa, pitting countries against each other for continental bragging rights.

The tournament has led to bigger exposure for African players and larger opportunities abroad. With African stars playing increasingly bigger roles in Europe's top leagues, next year's tournament in Ghana has the potential to be the best ever.

But El Hadji Diouf, Senegal's former African player of the year, believes the tournament could be wrecked as a spectacle because of its timing.

The Nations Cup is once again scheduled to take place in January and February, at the height of the European season.

In 2006, Diouf was one of five Bolton players who missed a chunk of the Premiership season to represent their countries in Egypt.

And the Senegalese striker, in an extensive interview with the BBC, says he can understand why his manager, Sam Allardyce, was so annoyed at having to do without himself, Abdoulaye Faye, Khalilou Fadiga, Radhi Jaidi and Jay Jay Okocha.

"We are not playing the African Nations Cup at the right time. We need to look at it again," Diouf said.

"Why can't we play when the Premiership is finished? We can play the African Nations Cup in a month at the end of the season.

"This would make it easier for us and easier for the clubs as well.

"It's normal that the clubs don't want us to leave and go and play in the African Nations Cup, because they pay us every week.

"You can't leave the club and your team-mates like that, because the Premiership is very difficult. A team like Bolton may lose three or four players.

"I don't think (Chelsea manager) Jose Mourinho would be happy about losing Didier Drogba or Barcelona happy about losing Samuel Eto'o."

He's right. And this could hurt African superstars in the future. But who is to blame? Diouf lays the responsibility squarely on the people running African football.

"If you look at the Premiership you will see that African players are doing well - like Shabani Nonda, Benni McCarthy, and Didier Drogba.

"Also if you look at Spain we are doing well there and everywhere else in the world. African players don't have a problem playing in Europe. The problem is in Africa.

"Some federations don't respect football, don't care what month we play the Nations Cup just as long as we do.

"We need good people in charge who will safeguard African football."

So why not stage the Cup at a different time? Why not change the schedule to better meet the players needs? Seems like another case of people shooting themselves in the foot. Someone needs to rethink this thickheadedness and amend policy. Or else the only ones to suffer will be the players and fans.

** On another note, look at this salvo from Diouf: "I respect Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Angola for reaching the World Cup and what they achieved there, but everybody knows the big teams in Africa didn't go to the World Cup.

"When you see Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal all staying at home, then it is not a true reflection of the strength of the game in Africa."

That's interesting ... I like the competitive spirt. It's refreshing to hear honesty and passion from an athlete. Now if only he'd stop spitting at people ...

Monday, April 2, 2007

African Stars in Europe


Here's how some of Africa's best fared over the weekend in Europe:

-- In England, Ivory Coast's Salomon Kalou kept Chelsea in the hunt to retain their English championship.

Kalou scored in injury time to give the Blues a 1-0 victory over hosts Watford. The result keeps Chelsea within six points of leaders Manchester United.

-- In Spain, Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o added to his tally to keep Barcelona at the top of the table with a 50th minute goal.

Barcelona defeated Deportivo La Coruna 2-1 and after 28 games the La Liga holders have a two-point lead over closest rivals Sevilla.

-- In Italy, Messina's Ivorian defender Marc Andre Zoro was sent-off in the 75th minute. To make matters worse, his side lost 2-0 to Cagliari.

-- In France, Algeria's Rafik Saifi helped Lorient to a 2-1 win over Marseille on Friday with a 60th minute goal.

Guinea's Ismael Bangoura gave Le Mans the lead against Auxerre who fought back from 2 goals down to draw 2-2.

Kanga Akale from Ivory Coast scored the first Auxerre goal.

Another Ivorian Amara Diane (pictured, right) opened the scoring for Paris Saint-Germain as they beat Lens 2-1 - PSG are still only one point above the relegation zone in France.

-- In Holland, PSV Eindhoven striker Arouna Kone will miss Tuesday's Champions League match against England's Liverpool because of injury.

The Ivorian has not yet recovered from the knee injury that ruled him out of last weekend's Nations Cup qualifier against Madagascar.

Kone's absence is a blow to the Dutch side ahead of the first-leg of the quarter final clash in Eindhoven as they have two other players on the injury list.

Liverpool's Malian midfielder Mohammed Sissoko will also miss Tuesday's game because he is suspended.