African soccer / The games must go on
There is no doubt that the murderous events that occurred on Friday near the border between Angola and the Republic of Congo cast a long shadow over the Africa Cup of Nations tournament and that they will unleash a number of genies from various bottles. But who, if not we Israelis, could understand that these things happen - in Israel, in Africa in and some of the most developed Western countries too - and that one must not surrender to terrorism.
Let us put aside for a moment the argument over the scheduling of the Africa Cup, for the tournament must not be postponed. When the English Premier League cancels games due to ice and snow, it is quite comical to hear team officials there complain about the timing of the Africa Cup.
Despite the horrifying nature of the murder and the sympathy that is to be extended to the Togo squad, let us try to focus on soccer. For the Africa Cup is no less riveting than the Copa America, no less exhilarating than the Euro, and its importance to the international soccer landscape is beyond doubt. Yet the tournament that is scheduled to commence today has special significance, not just because it is taking place in Angola, but because of the historic World Cup that is slated to be held in South Africa later this summer.
This is the most important year in the annals of African soccer. A successful showing - not just in organizing the two tournaments but also in the teams' performances on the pitch - will finally make clear to the world that Africa is nearly as important to the soccer world as South America or Europe.
This is so not only because the continent has proved fertile ground for some outstanding players who shine in the top leagues in Europe, but also because Africa can hold its own against anyone. If the venture fails due to organizational or security lapses such as Friday's shooting before the opening whistle in Angola, all the stereotypes that are believed by too many people will be further entrenched.
In the 1980s Pele famously predicted that an African country would capture the World Cup before 2000. Yet it was Sir Walter Winterbottom, the late manager of the English team, who made similar statements in the 1960s. This did not materialize on the men's teams for a number of reasons, chief among them arguably being post-colonial exploitation. Too many white Europeans and capitalists who were accustomed to sucking the continent dry of its natural resources did the same thing with its people as they had with oil, diamonds and ivory.
This arrangement was created for their benefit and that of quite a number of quality African players, but it came at the expense of the national teams. Indeed, in the first U-17 World Cup in 1985 was won by Nigeria, a team made up of 16-year-olds who grew up and played in Nigeria. (The biggest star to emerge from that squad was Jonathan Akpoborie, who put together an impressive career in the German Bundesliga in the 1990s.)
It is a fact that African nations have won as many U-17 World Cups as those from Europe and South America. It is a fact that Ghana, the current U-20 World Cup champion, captured the title with a majority of players who train and play in the country. This debunks the notion that Africans lack the mentality or maturity to succeed on the big stage, which is nothing but long-discredited racist chatter. This year presents an opportunity for an African team to go all the way, to show that the predictions were just late in blossoming, to prove that Africa measures up to the rest of the world.
Angola 2010 will be an early semester test in preparation for the really big exam this summer. In terms of security and organization, it already gets a failing grade. In terms of soccer, however, it needs to whet our appetites and indicate to us that there is much to anticipate for South Africa. After all, we closely follow players with names like Eto'o, Drogba, and Essien. When a country like Mali (which has never even qualified for the World Cup) exports key players for teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Sevilla, one can ignore problems such as terrorism and think about greatness.