Africa Report

Fierce rivalry and the bulky Pirate

August 3, 2011
By Gary Al-Smith
(Archive)

When Ronaldo helped draw Ethiopia and Somalia in one World Cup qualification group, he had resurrected a fierce politico-football rivalry. Can Africa, meanwhile, return the FIFA World Youth Championships? And we look at Benni McCarthy's return to South African football. All in this week's Africa Report.

Coming back to Africa

Dominic Adiyiah battles it out with Jack Wilshere
GettyImagesDominic Adiyiah battles it out with Jack Wilshere

Africa currently has the world's best player and top scorer under the age of 20. He's currently in Karsiyaka, a bustling Turkish location home to Karsiyaka SK. Ghanaian Dominic Adiyiah's career has been as questionable as that of the national team he stunned the world with, as his home nation was not able to qualify to defend its crown at the ongoing FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Cameroon, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria are looking to keep the trophy in Africa. Nigeria have had a flying start, brushing Guatemala aside 5-0. Egypt have looked very encouraging, coming back to draw with Brazil in their opener and then beating Panama 1-0. Cameroon and Mali, traditionally poor in this realm, have started less encouragingly.

Nigeria, currently African champions at this level, are the most promising with a cohesive team built around a rapidly rising coach. John Obuh does not talk much, usually leaving his players' performance to speak of his ambitions.

In a job where former coaches rarely praise successors, the former coach of this Nigeria side has praised Obuh for his tactical guile and attacking style. The worry in this populous nation has, as ever, been whether these lads will be around in five years, or fall on the wayside like so many past African starlets have. Players to look out for in the African teams at this World Cup include Egypt's Omar Gaber and Nigeria's Ahmed Musa, both mercurial midfielders. So who could be world champions on August 20 in Bogota? Coach John Obuh said: "Nigeria. Every other team should take care of themselves."

New nation, new stresses

The euphoria that greeted the formation of the world's newest nation was understandable, but the realities of modern nationhood are creeping in - especially in football. South Sudan played their first friendly a day after independence and had already started making plans to partake in the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup in three months' time. Unfortunately, bureaucratic procedures mean it will not be possible.

Cecafa is the regional football controlling body in East and Central Africa and its secretary general explained the situation: "We are happy to have South Sudan as a potential member, but their participation in the tournament will depend on their CAF and FIFA status." That could take some time, as admittance from the two bodies is not that straightforward.

The South Sudan Football Federation is confident that its application to join CAF will be accepted and that two years from now it will be able to join FIFA. Until then, the name Sudan is what you'll see in tournaments. And until then, there's another problem to be solved.

The new South Sudan team, nicknamed the Bright Star, have been drawn into a vortex of citizenship issues. Before the South's independence on July 9, it had promised to grant dual citizenship to northerners living there. But the president of the North, Omar Al-Bashir, was not so compliant, saying it was "illogical to opt for independence and then demand concessions. Nationality will not be granted to southerners after secession".

Al-Bashir had also sworn that South Sudanese living in the North will lose their jobs, despite this being contrary to diplomatic agreements. A large number of Southern Sudanese players have a marked presence on Sudanese football teams, including Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh. They have also formed the crux of Sudan's (unified) national team.

The issue may spiral out of control, with administrators and legal experts grappling for solutions. And on a personal level, lifelong friendships formed by northern and southern players are threatening to go bust on the altar of nationalist games.

Salah Al-Ameer, a player, summed the situation up: "I can't imagine a barrier between us. This will be a loss for sport and the worst thing ever. Pulling the players apart would have a psychological impact on us, and there would be a lot of confusion on technical and administrative levels, too."

From lean Portista to bulky Pirate

Benni McCarthy joins the Orlando Pirates
GettyImagesBenni McCarthy joins the Orlando Pirates

Benni McCarthy wants to be the first man to win both the African and European Champions Leagues. If he had said this to West Ham officials six months ago, they would have chided him for being on too many extra large burgers. In February, McCarthy was fined almost £200,000 by West Ham for failing to meet fitness targets in his bizarre battle of the bulge. This week, he could not have been more serious about his ambitions: "It is time to come home. I don't really see myself starting all over again in another country. I've moved around enough."

Now, he is home. On Tuesday, the former Porto striker, now looking trim, signed for Orlando Pirates in a move that chairman Irvin Khoza described as "the vital final element needed for the club to become champions of Africa again" for the first time since 1995. There's a buzz around fans because this is a clear union of two big South African brands. McCarthy is the country's all-time top goal-scorer.

He turns 34 in November and he's now slower, leading cynics to laugh his move off as commercially-motivated, especially in a Pirates team that has an abundance of attacking talent. McCarthy could have chosen his boyhood club, Kaizer Chiefs, or even Ajax Cape Town - his hometown club - but settled on Pirates because they seem better equipped to help him make history.

"Pirates are talking about winning the African Champions League - I could become the first player to win the Champions League in Europe and in Africa. That will be a special record." In football, class is permanent. Benni has a lot of class, but he needs to work on his form as well.

War, peace and the World Cup

Nothing attracts the media like a negative story. Nothing. Anything to do with the Horn of Africa in the past few weeks has usually been about the famine - said to be the worst in 60 years. The easternmost part of Ethiopia has a significant Somali population, who've developed a fierce football rivalry with their hosts over the years. This has not always been so. And so when the World Cup qualification draw this past weekend pitted Ethiopia against Somalia, they may have had no idea of the football and political skeletons that were dug up.

Somalia is not Ethiopia's biggest football rival - that would be Uganda and Rwanda. But Ethiopians want regional revenge as they have been unable to beat their eastern neighbours since 2004, due to what they claim has been a disunited national team, and not because Somalia were better.

Ethiopia's team, called the Waliyas, won the Cecafa regional tournament in 2003. They were led to that victory by Asrat Haile, the most successful Ethiopian national and club coach. The following year, he was suddenly assigned a German coach to "assist the team move to the next level". Asrat was unable to work with Johan Figge, and the bad blood spilled over to the players, most of whom supported their countryman.

The Somalia game came during this turbulent period and the lack of cohesion showed on the field. The Waliyas lost and in Somalia this was a big deal.

Somalia, who have fought two major wars with Ethiopia in 1964 and 1977, have developed a generally frosty relationship with their neighbours. Two years after this win, Somalia was at the height of its civil war. Ethiopian troops again crossed the Somali border, further heightening animosity between the two nations. They have not met in a competitive football game since. And when they meet in the qualifiers, it should be a spectacle indeed.

Gary Al-Smith writes on African football for ESPN and is on Twitter at @garyalsmith