African Nations Cup: More than a game

Posted by Firdose Moonda

A street vendor in an upmarket Johannesburg suburb is selling something different for the next three weeks. In addition to his usual memorabilia, he has also been waving a massive Ghanaian flag which many admire as they drive past.

It is bigger than the flag of the same description which has been planted along the highway in Port Elizabeth where the Ghanian team are based for the African Nations Cup which gets underway on Saturday. Despite being hundreds kilometres away from there, he thinks his will sell. South Africa's second favourite (and judging by their feelings toward Bafana Bafana soon to be favourite) team have been received with all the hospitality this country is known for, but they are not the only ones.

At hotels in the five host cities, vuvuzelas have been heard outside and enthusiasts wearing oversized spectacle frames have been spotted searching for opportunities to have their pictures taken with continental stars. The vibe, despite enormous attempts to suffocate it, is squeezing its way through, but you may not have heard too much about it.

Maybe the news isn't out there that the opening match between the hosts and Cape Verde is sold out, or that more than 400,000 tickets have been sold. Pre-tournament sales were targeted at 500,000 which means over four-fifths of the intended figure has been met. Of course, South Africa’s stadiums can hold many more and on-day sales (as is the culture in this country) could add to those numbers. There were initial problems with the ticketing system and the sales points which have since been rectified. To say interest is minimal is just not true.

Marketing has not been abundant, but is has also not been absent. Until Wednesday, I was in Port Elizabeth, where there is a fair amount of signage. On arrival in Johannesburg, I noticed a similar amount. In an age where posters and placards take a backseat to word of mouth and online presence, it’s difficult to imagine why it would make much difference whether they are gimmicky billboards about or not.

Funding has also come under the microscope because South Africa offered to swap hosting rights with Libya at short notice. Municipalities were required to fork out some of their own cash because the national budget was finalised before the ANC was moved to the country. Small differences have come from corporate backing and today, the lottery who will provide 13.5 million rand ($1.6 million) for the volunteers for the event.

Still, if the local media is to be believed, the African Nations Cup is a summer’s day waiting to be rained on. As a member of the media, I am a firm believer the press is not a cheerleading outfit. It’s our job to be neutral and fair, which also means we cannot be unnecessarily predicting doom, especially not if it has to do with ourselves.

The complaints about delayed press conferences and others about accreditation queues are tired and of little interest to fans. Issues journalists face when doing their job are not news unless reporters are prevented from doing their work or influenced to do it in a certain way. People in other industries have issues of their own which don’t make it into daily newspapers.

What should be recorded on those pages are things people cannot see for themselves. Things like the woman who pulled her car over as soon as she saw the Malian team bus so that she could get out and take photographs. That woman, and others like her, is mostly what this tournament is about.

I say mostly because there will definitely be disappointments. Whether it’s Bafana Bafana failing to score, defending champion Zambia crashing out in the first round, a team whose training kit gets stolen, any allegation of misconduct - this competition will not be perfect and the imperfections will be headlined as they should be.

But what about the few things it will get right? Things such as the event’s partnership with the United Against Malaria campaign that will spread messages on how to prevent the disease that kills almost 600,000 Africans a year. Didier Drogba, long involved in charitable causes, will be one of the faces of this initiative. In the wider context, mentioning this seems like nothing more than PR, but one only needs to remember the response Seydou Keita got to his plea for people caught in the famine in the Sahel last year to know that sometimes a small difference can be made.

Football is often referred to as being more than a game. In an African context, it holds true a lot of the time. Every team at this tournament will play to win - some like Niger and Burkina Faso will play despite massive financial burdens, others like Mali in the hope of easing some of the pain their conflicted county is experiencing. At the very least, that can draw some words of praise.

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