African football cup a boost for fans, businesses

Sunday 22/01/2017
Opening ceremony of African Cup of Nations in Libreville, Gabon, on January 14th. (Reuters)

Tunis - Football fans and the busi­nesses that cater to them had been anxiously await­ing the African Cup of Na­tions (CAN) being contest­ed in Gabon.

“As part of a country that has a huge fan base for football, we consider all football tournaments important,” said Tunisian football enthusiast Hamza Ben Tiba. “The African Cup of Nations… is the sec­ond most important one, next only to the World Cup.

“It’s a highly anticipated event and I do not exaggerate when I say that close to half the country watches in the hope that this cup will be ours,” Ben Tiba added.

Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco head the Maghreb contingent while Egypt, led by emerging star Mo­hamed Salah, is hoping to add to the country’s three CAN titles in the past decade.

Notably absent from this year’s 16-team tournament are Nigeria and South Africa, former champi­ons that failed to qualify.

For Maghreb football followers, who may feel more in touch with their Arab or Amazigh heritage, the African Cup of Nations presents a chance to engage with a broader spectrum of African life.

“While all of Africa is diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity and culture, including sub-Saharan Af­rica, Maghreb identity is specific because the region is on the Medi­terranean, which, historically and until now, favoured a lot of inter­mingling of peoples, cultures, cus­toms and ways of life,” said Nejib Ayachi, founder and president of the Washington-based Maghreb Center.

People from the Maghreb, like most in Africa, share a passion for football and have performed strongly in previous CAN tourna­ments. Tunisia, Algeria and Mo­rocco each have one title. Tunisia is the most recent victor among them, winning in 2004.

Despite the event’s popularity, however, it presents challenges for fans without access to cable televi­sion, who must either stream the games online or crowd into one of the cafés showing the matches.

“Most of them go to the cafés,” said Ben Tiba, “and it is usually a full house. If you do not come early enough, you will watch the game standing.”

For café owners and workers, CAN is a financial godsend. “The games are a great source of revenue for the cafés, especially when Tuni­sia is playing,” said Tahar Mannai, who works at a café in Tunis.

Despite the entertainment and camaraderie the cup often brings, some have cautioned about the dangers of its promoting ethnocen­trism or intense nationalism.

“The African cups in football, boxing, basketball and other sports do not bring people together be­cause of the way they are organised and financed,” said Rachid Tlemça­ni, a professor of political science at the University of Algiers.

“On the contrary, these sports bring chauvinism, bigotry, intoler­ance and violence. Sportsmanship is not highlighted when autocrats and the military take care of these events,” he said.

Football matches have also often become the sites of violent clashes and the CAN has not been an excep­tion.

During the 2015 CAN semi-finals, supporters of the hosts Equatorial Guinea threw objects at Ghanaian fans and players in what was later described as “a night of shame for African football”. The match was delayed after Ghanaian fans were forced to huddle in a small enclo­sure near the goal for shelter. Equa­torial Guinea, which lost the match 3-0, was fined $69,500 over the in­cident.

In 2009, a World Cup qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria spiralled into political violence in Cairo after reports circulated that Egyptian fans had been attacked by Algerians while leaving the sta­dium. Infuriated by these accounts, Egyptians flocked to the Algerian embassy in Cairo, hurling “fire­bombs at police… and (overturning) a police van”, the BBC reported. Dozens were reportedly injured and thousands of Algerian flags burned.

Despite such setbacks, many view this year’s cup as an overall positive force for the continent, an opportunity for fans and players from across Africa to come together and enjoy a common passion.

“I think that playing football against each other as part of one continent, brings people together, undoubtedly,” Ayachi said.

This year’s competition, which includes more than 20 English Pre­mier League players, promises to provide exciting moments.

Among those to watch is one of Africa’s highest-paid players, Sa­dio Mane. A winger for Liverpool, Mane has helped position his native Senegal as an early CAN favourite. Senegal has never won the tourna­ment.

Other favourites include Ghana, which has four titles, the Ivory Coast and Algeria, whose first match against Zimbabwe finished in a 2-2 draw.

Top finishers in the group stage of the tournament advance to the quarter-finals in late January. The final match is scheduled for Febru­ary 5th.