Something different for this edition of the Bandy and Shinty Book Club. Author of 'Kicking off in North Korea', Tim Hartley, was kind enough to provide us with an exclusive account of his experience at the 2017 African Cup of Nations.
Beautiful, beautiful chaos – Welcome to the African Cup of Nations
words: Tim Hartley
Cars, buses and pick-up trucks with people hanging out of windows and sunroofs made their way through the night crowd. Waving flags and blowing plastic vuvuzela horns, the yellow-shirted supporters of Gabon wound their way from the Stade D’Amitie to Libreville city centre. The host team had just drawn against Cameroon sending them out of the tournament. Imagine what the party would’ve been like if they’d won?
I took a break from the long walk home and was nursing a bottle of Regab beer at a roadside bar, looking on. A man in his twenties plonked his bottle down next to mine, rocking the rickety wooden table. Christian had studied politics and had worked in South Africa, Ethiopia and Dubai. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said unprompted. “It’s a safe country this, really safe. You are most welcome. But the government, no don’t talk to me about them.”
The object of Christian’s anger was President Ali Bongo. Ali took over from his father Omar Bongo who controlled Gabon for more than forty years. There had been accusations of family embezzlement, human rights abuses and of irregularities during the 2016 presidential election.
Gabon is oil-rich but a third of the population still live in poverty. We’d been told to avoid political protests, but just as in Brazil before football’s world cup there, as soon as the tournament started the protests stopped anyway.
The African Cup of Nations is the continent’s biggest football show case and the whole country wanted to put its best face on for the world. But AFCON, as the competition is known, has also had its share of controversy. Hosts Morocco refused to hold it in 2015 because of fears over Ebola and in 2010, in Angola, the Togo team bus was attacked by gunmen, killing three people.
This year, Zimbabwe’s team revolted over money and accommodation before they left for Gabon, while the tournament organisers faced a lawsuit over the sale of international television rights.
After the Morocco-Ivory Coast match at the Stade D’Oyem I’d trudged through thick mud as I left the gleaming stadium. This arena in the jungle of northern Gabon looks like becoming something of a white elephant. It cost tens of millions of dollars to build, is far from the town and expensive to get to. Will it ever be filled again after AFCON is over?
Local people say the money could have been better spent. But Junior Binyam from the Confederation of African Football said the stadium had had an immediate impact - “It’s all about making water available and bringing electricity for the neighbours of the stadium.”
So is the African Cup of Nations really a celebration of the beautiful game and a showcase of the best this continent has to offer – or just a vanity project for presidents and governments?
Crowds are always small for AFCON finals and the organisers say they will try harder next time. But small groups of fans do travel to enjoy the tournament. The teams have lovely nicknames: the Stallions of Burkina Faso, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, not forgetting the Panthers of Gabon. It is a colourful, noisy celebration of the game. One journalist described it all as ‘beautiful, beautiful chaos.’
The local organisers’ newspaper ‘Esprit’ was full praise for Gabon’s hospitality. I walked the streets of Oyem looking for a ticket for the Uganda versus Mali game in vain for about half an hour in the midday sun. But then a young girl in a school blouse and neat blue skirt gestured for me to follow her. She led me to an office with little flags announcing ‘Billets ici,’ ‘Tickets here,’ but the woman behind the counter said, ‘No, not here. Try the stadium.’
Exasperated, we left the stuffy office but after a few words with strangers the girl pointed us towards a man in a well-pressed suit. ‘Bien sur,’ ‘Of course,’ he said and produced two match tickets from his pocket. ‘Combien?’ ‘How much?’ I asked, but neither he nor the young girl would take a single African Franc for their generosity.
It would be easy to say that AFCON simply reflects the problems of a whole continent. Shambolic, sometimes corrupt and well, all a bit messy. I have no doubt there are real issues in Gabon and that football administration in Africa - as elsewhere in the world - is far from perfect.
But even cynical Christian, back in the ramshackle bar in Libreville, could forget the politics of it all for a couple of weeks and enjoy the colour, welcome and friendship of a simple football tournament. And for that I say, ‘What a trip - Merci Gabon.’
It was hardly going to be the match of the day, Tunisia versus Zimbabwe, unless of course you follow football in Tunisia or Zimbabwe. And that really is what the African Cup of Nations is all about. However second rate your players may be and however poor your game is it is still your country, your team.
Tickets for this first round match had been advertised on giant billboards across the city. There were five different locations where you could buy them apparently though no-one we spoke to seemed to think we had much of a chance of getting one. ‘No, too far,’ they said. ‘You’re better off going to the stadium.’ But that was a taxi ride away and a waste of half a day.
We persevered with or pidgin French, gesticulating at the photograph of the billboard I had taken on my mobile at the street corner. There it was. The oversized Hotel de Ville on Boulevard Triumphale. Phew. We walked through the gates past an abandoned security guardhouse and across the parched lawns. But the main entrance was sealed off with red and white tape as if it were a crime scene.
Around the back of the Hotel we were met with blank stares by everyone we harangued until one dapper man in a tight suit with a shiny bald head and thin spectacles took pity on us. ‘Venez ici!’ he commanded. ‘Come here.’ And we followed him down a poorly lit corridor in an annex behind the town hall itself. Room 11 was unlocked but empty. B6 was also unlocked but there was no-one there. ‘Ah,’ said our supposed saviour, ‘they finished at 3 p.m.’
We said that he must know of someone who could offer these fans from afar a chance to watch the game. Our bespectacled friend shepherded us into the back of the main building, up a set of stairs and gestured for us to sit in a corner office. We had seen a couple of people leaving the building carrying large Christmas presents all wrapped in the same red paper. Christmas presents at this time of year? I had tried to make a joke of it to our new friend but I guess it got lost in translation.
In the office where we waited two of the staff chatted and when they left they both collected Christmas presents in the same wrapping paper. I turned to my son Chester and asked if the Gabonese celebrated the birth of Christ on the 23rd of January. Surreal. Indeed the presents and the empty, echoing town hall were all a bit unnerving.
After some time another well-dressed man was presented to us. He was brandishing two of the precious tickets. He told us that the price was 10,000 Central African Francs, the same price we had refused to pay the street urchins outside the shopping mall that morning. I counted out the notes and hands were shaken in thanks. Then, without a hint of embarrassment, our short shiny middle man asked for his cut of the 10,000 francs. As we walked back across the gardens Chester said what we both thought: that we had just helped a bent civil servant make a few quid instead of helping hustlers on a street corner who were also trying to make a dishonest buck.
We walked down the Boulevard Triumphale in silence. Another big poster was advertising the AFCON games. This one showed a list of the ticket prices. Oh dear. We had just paid 5,000 francs each for a ticket worth 500 francs. ‘C’est la vie’ I guess. What a place, what a tournament.
About Tim Hartley
Tim Hartley thinks his next best experience is around the corner so, he just keeps on travelling. He was a journalist with the BBC for 17 years and has worked in Europe, Central Asia and Africa. Tim was Chair of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust, is Vice Chair of Supporters Direct and a member of the FSF National Council.
He has an unhealthy interest in post-communist regimes, is a regular contributor on radio and television and he has shared his obsession on the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’ and in a number of newspapers and magazines. Tim lives in Cardiff with his son Chester who shares his interest and his wife Helen who humours them both. His mother in law in Port Talbot once said to him, “How many trips of a lifetime can you have, boy?”
Tim’s book ‘Kicking off in North Korea’ is about football and friendship in foreign lands and yes, he has watched a match in North Korea. You can buy it here. We strongly recommend you do too as it's a cracking read.