No group of death but some countries will be composing dirges early!

The 2012 Cup of Nations draw went ahead over a week ago – ages now with our short attention spans – and now all the 16 participating teams know which lane they’ve been assigned. The allocations are below.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Senegal, Zambia (Bata)

Group B: Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola (Malabo)

Group C: Gabon, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia (Libreville)

Group D: Ghana, Botswana, Mali and Guinea (Franceville)

Before a draw of this kind, a favorite pastime for many is to prepare to name the dreaded ‘Group of Death’ and of course to endlessly speculate on the favorites. After the draw, the debate intensifies with mucho airtime and ink devoted to deciding once and for all who will win and who has the toughest group.

It is as though we NEED a group of death so badly that even when there is none we force it. That is how I felt when I looked at my twitter feed and some websites that often exclusively reveal stuff (even as the whole world knows it already).

Ladies and gentleman, THERE IS NO GROUP OF DEATH.

The word that was dominant in my mind when I looked at the draw was ‘balance.’ I thought this draw was as balanced as I’ve ever seen. Every team will look at their groups and say to themselves, ‘with the right amount of dedication, organization and good fortune we could go to the second round and possibly beyond.’ Well, almost everyone. The co-hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea must be kicking themselves thinking we are spending all this money for this?!!! Then again, good hosts rarely have fun at their events anyways, saddled with the constant fretting and troubleshooting. Don’t believe me? Try hosting a dinner party.

Still, the advantage of playing at home should not be discounted. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon will have some good opportunities to qualify but if I were betting I’d bet against them getting out of the first round.

Few would wager against the Black Stars and Cote d’ Ivoire’s Elephants coming out of their groups. In fact, Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire constantly pop up as potential winners – Ghana by virtue of a stellar 2010, Cote d’ Ivoire because of their collective of stars, Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho to name a few. I’d add Senegal to that group. A deadly strike force and the emergence of young players should make their opponents’ nervous.

When I think of Senegal’s strikers I break into a cold sweat and want to bang my head against a wall lamenting why we can’t even get two more strikers equal or better than Asamoah Gyan and why Emmanuel Adebayor who seemingly spends more of his downtime in Ghana than anywhere else wasn’t convinced to play for Ghana. Aaaarrrrgggghhhhh. Can you imagine the possibilities? Multiple Azontos every match I tell you. Sigh. Having said aaalllllllll of that, Senegal still have to prove it in a tournament setting.

Add the North Africans – Morocco, Tunisia-  who are typically formidable come tournament time and the tournament might be the most open we will have for a while.

The tournament awaits us all.



As crisis in Cote d' Ivoire lurches from uncertainty to uncertainty, Ivorians see football as vehicle for peace

The Ivorian conflict continues with conflicting reports about President Laurent Gbagbo’s surrender. Two weekends ago, a largely Ivorian crowd was at the Ohene Djan Sports Stadium in Accra to watch a Didier Drogba-led side emerge victorious over the Squirrels of Benin. For a few hours it provided a distraction from the problems back home. The game provided relief but it is safe to say many of the fans in the stands would rather have watched it in Abidjan.

Officially, there are currently over 3000 refugees in Ghana from Cote d’ Ivoire dispersed across a couple of camps. The numbers of refugees to Liberia is over 120,000 since December while those internally displaced is up to over 750,000 according to estimates by UNHCR. 

A day before the match I run into a young man whose organization was looking to promote peace in Cote d’ Ivoire using football. He inquired about printing a banner to be displayed at the beginning of the match. Regis Lemonn Bio is president of Foot’attitude and after the match I met up with him again to talk about his country’s victory. His joy was palpable but the worry was not far off. The win over Benin meant a lot to him “because it is the national team that brings us together as one, as a people.” The three year old organization has engaged players like Gervinho, Didier Zokora and Drogba to drum home the ideas of ‘peace, togetherness, brotherhood’ while encouraging  young boys to develop those ideals using the game.

Despite his appreciation for Ghanaian hospitality, Bio, a self described ‘huge football fan,’ was keen for his country to return to normal.  

At the end of the match the players gathered together to wear a t-shirt that read ‘paix en Cote d’ Ivoire’ which translates as ‘peace in Ivory Coast.’ Bio’s organization were involved in making these shirts and the message on them spoke for many not only in his country but on the continent who yearn for that ever elusive condition of peace. “We are brothers,” Bio says. “When you see those players they are all from different backgrounds and when they are together in the team, there is no more difference.”

The ouster of Gbagbo may well signal the specter of protracted conflict and a largely unstable country. Perhaps I will be proven wrong and peace and increased togetherness will emerge sooner rather than later. Given the destruction and the divisiveness that has existed for over a decade in the land once known as ‘petit paris,’ this much is true- the road ahead is uncertain. There will be many many overtures by diplomats, politicians and other leaders of the country and continent but if any of the scenes at the stadium is anything to go by, football will be critical in mending the rifts and healing old wounds.

After all, it was the iconic Drogba who went to rebel-held Bouake after the ceasefire in 2007 to urge peace while sharing with residents of the city his 2006 African footballer of the year award. This gesture is widely cited as a symbolic moment where Ivorians united around one person. Fewer and fewer athletes adopt political causes these days but Didier Drogba’s affiliation with his country and its peace efforts show what a difference sports and sportsmen can make.

As future chapters are written in Cote d’ Ivoire’s story, football will  and should serve as a rallying ground for the furtherance of peace and the advancement of human development. A people who have endured so much suffering but are blessed with so many resources, no less its footballing talent deserve no less.