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My journey from Brooklyn, New York January 4, 2007 to the World Cup Final match July 11, 2010 in South Africa. How will I get there? I have no idea. Join me as I travel around Africa, write a book, make some friends and watch the beautiful game!
Mark Gleeson is a living legend of African football, and probably the only man at the African Cup of Nations who has been photographed naked for the Serbian edition of Playboy. It was not full frontal, which is just as well as he's taller than Peter Crouch. It was just a picture of his big toe, with a palm tree in the background, but it was important to the editorial staff back in the Balkans to establish that Mark Gleeson was in fact a real person.
Why? Gleeson features in a couple of books by the former Observer columnist and renowned football author Simon Kuper, who wrote in particular of a wacky trip to Swaziland with Gleeson, who describes himself as "the anorak's anorak". Kuper's article was translated for Playboy in Belgrade and they wanted a number for Gleeson.
"They called and asked me 'Are you a real person?' I said yes, and they wanted photographic evidence. So that's where the big toe came into the picture."
He tells me this story during one of the highlights of any Cup of Nations, the biennial dinner with Gleeson. Fifteen years ago he started out on a quest to do what nobody has ever done, and build a record of football on this continent. His efforts are recognised by Fifa, for whom he is the official archivist for Africa, and without him nobody would know how many caps they have, how many goals they have scored in the African Champions League, and so on and so on. This sort of thing is taken for granted in Europe and elsewhere, but in Africa next to nothing is known. Or was, until Gleeson stepped in.
As an example, I tried to find out what I could about the first tour of Britain by a team from Ghana, then the Gold Coast, back in 1951. The only mention of that historic visit is a minute of an FA committee meeting in the Soho Square archives which reads "It was agreed to pay the Gold Coast AFA 17s 6d (87p) towards the costs of their tour." In Ghana there is nothing. When a researcher once visited the Nigerian FA records section/library he found a grand total of three publications.
Much of the evening's conversation revolved around Gleeson's garage back home in Cape Town. It holds his drum kit and other unimaginable treasures - if you like that sort of thing. He has photocopied team line-ups from years and years of matches in the top African club competitions. "CAF [the continental federation] burned the rest when they moved offices in Cairo recently," says a horrified Gleeson. He went with his wife to copy as much as he could before CAF moved.
He also has the complete record - and there is plenty of it - of the 'whites only' FA in South Africa that was suspended from world football, and piles of information, which took many hours of difficult research to unearth, on the 'blacks only' league, which was scarcely reported. He wants to compile a record of every game played in that league before football became 'mixed' in 1976.
He knows everything, and everyone. He tells of the Brits who played in South Africa years ago. "I saw George Best play at the Rand Stadium, a full house. Bobby Moore made plenty of visits, Johnny Haynes, Budgie Byrne. In one season, I think it was 1999, Budgie Byrne, his two sons and his son in law all coached teams in Cape Town in the SA League. He was at Cape Town Spurs, his son David at Santos, Mark at Hellenic, and Gavin Hunt, who married Budgie's only daughter, Karen, was at Seven Stars. Nine weeks in, David was sacked."
"Didn't David win a cap for South Africa," asks one of our well-informed dining companions. "No," says Gleeson. "He got an Under-23 cap at the age of 35, against the US."
Did you also know that Lucas Radebe played in goal for Bophuthatswana against a South African amateur XI? That Eusebio's dad was Angolan? That two brothers currently playing international football turn out for different countries, Uganda and Rwanda?
And did you know this: no team in world football is compelled to send its team lists to Fifa for archiving. There is no record of the line-ups for senior international matches - just scores and the venue.
"It's scandalous," says Gleeson, who is not your normal dysfunctional football nerd. He is a family man with children (most unusual in nerdland) and great company. "Now it's even worse than it used to be. Surely Fifa should recognise the value of this information. What are they playing at?"
He's invited me to see his garage during the 2010 World Cup. How can I say no?
The Sandlanders approach is exceptional because we are making use of the marketing power of the Internet to offer an international platform to a talented but unrecognised side. This platform will be used not just to develop the club but also to benefit the local community in Keta. Annual club membership costs just £5, of this fee £1 goes directly to support local community initiatives and the remaining £4 is put towards sustainable team development. Members will be able to follow the fortunes of their club and community projects through this site and will be able to actively participate in the running of the club.
There is a passion for national teams in Africa that easily surpasses most of Europe. Part of this is because most top African players are based abroad, which leaves the domestic leagues to serve as perennial feeder clubs. They know not to fall too deeply in love with their clubs because, if they do well, they will be raided by European teams.
At the same time, satellite television brings football from all over the world into African homes. And with domestic football often on the periphery, African viewers soak it up, to the point that they are easily as knowledgeable as, and usually far less parochial than, their European counterparts.
The other big factor is socio-historical. Forget the facile stereotypes, Africa is easily the most heterogeneous continent on earth, a place where more than 1,000 languages are spoken, where Islam and Christianity share the stage with hundreds of indigenous faiths and where, until recently, mass migration was limited, which meant that local communities tended to grow and endure independent of each other.
With all this passion comes pride. Pride that football is one of the few areas where Africa can go head-to-head with anyone in the world. Stripped to its essence, the game consists of men in boots kicking a ball. It is about as level a playing field as you can get in any pursuit, with the possible exception of athletics. And, with African teams coming close to matching the best in the world, you have to wonder what the continent could achieve if the fields were level in other areas as well.
After an epic battle between Africa's two top nations in Sekondi's Takoradi Stadium the Ivory Coast emerged victorious and the Nigerians were vanquished, and so there now seems to be no logical reason for the Elephants to leave the Gold Coast country of Ghana before the final game of this year's African Cup of Nations.
In fact if they do not drink from the cup this time around they will only have themselves to blame.
Off the field, from colourful fans through eccentric goalkeeping to inspired celebrations, much of what was expected has been delivered. Between the white lines, however, many of the pre-tournament storylines have, thus far, failed to play out as forecast. The only thing predictable, it seems, is this tournament's unpredictability.
The African Nations Cup is growing too big for its own good, if the chaos surrounding the organisation in Ghana at the start of this year’s event is anything to go by.
With a larger cast of internationally recognisable stars and the teams improving in quality, the Nations Cup is now much more than just Africa’s premier sporting event; it commands considerable interest worldwide. The supporting cast around the event gets larger with each passing edition — the officials, the supporters, the journalists, the agents and those with commercial interest in Africa’s top event.
The title sponsors alone had 1,700 guests for the opening match, several hundred flown in from other African countries. The media numbers have now passed the 1,000 accreditation mark and the phalanx of agents and business people now dealing in the African game seemingly doubles with every tournament.
I now officially hate Jose Mourinho, and if the bastard is assassinated tomorrow, come and look for me. The attacking instincts that John Mikel Obi once possessed have been well and truly drilled away, and what is left is a Frank Lampard imitation. Mikel is still a good player, but he isn't mature enough to boss a midfield on his own, and it showed when Kanu was removed. Had Mikel been more mature, or more attack minded on another hand, the outcome may well have been different. Olofinjana tried his best, but he was out of his depth, and well, we've talked about Kanu before.
Before the game an unbelievably irritating stadium announcer who loved the sound of his own voice kept on and on and on when he didn't need to say a word. He told us the names of the teams, their nicknames, their shirt colours, who was in the VIP seats (despite the fact that we'd already heard their speeches), who the sponsors were, who the captains were and all sorts of other drivel.
He would not shut it, and was even still talking after kick-off. Just before the end he boomed 'Ladies and gentlemen...' and I thought we'd have to sit through it all again, he's going to tell us what the score is and which way the teams were kicking and explain the offside rule. Then Sulley scored. That shut him up.
With just one day until kick off, Ghana is gripped by Nations Cup fever. Jake Brown reports from Accra.
You can’t escape it. The football has arrived. As the last of the teams fly into Ghana to prepare for the 28th edition of the African Cup of Nations the excitement in this football-mad country is reaching boiling point.
In the nation’s capital it seems every billboard in town is about the Cup. In Ghana’s chop bars and drinking spots, on TV and radio, people can talk of little else. The central streets are lined with the flags of participating countries and the street hawkers laden down with Nations Cup merchandise. Before a ball has been kicked Ghana is Nations Cup crazy.
The continents showpiece tournament is back in Ghana for the first time since 2000. Since then the Nations Cup has grown and grown and this edition is set to attract more attention than any before.
Over a million people are expected to travel to West Africa to watch the continents show piece tournament. As the tournament looms large, Accra is abuzz.
On Wednesday Ghana’s Black Stars touched down at Kotoka international airport in Accra. They returned from their training camp in Dubai to be greeted by 100s of devoted fans decked out in the nation’s colours of green, yellow, and red. The fans gave their players a raucous reception and set the tone for what promises to be one of the most colourful and competitive editions of the African Cup of Nations.
The anticipation is palpable but it hasn’t all been plain sailing in the run up to the kick off. Supporters have complained about a lack of tickets for some games, particularly those involving Ghana. Touts have bought many of the cheapest tickets (£2/4Cedis) for the opening match and are now selling them on at up to twelve times their face value. Meanwhile down at the media accreditation centre journalists have faced long queues and chaos as the computer systems went down on Friday.
On Sunday the tournament kicks off in Accra when Ghana plays Guinea, in the newly refurbished Ohene Djan Stadium. The nation expects. “We’ll be too strong for them. Three zero that is the score-line” says Accra resident Jerry Seamegbe. That confidence is echoed everywhere you go.
It’s been 30 long years since the Black Stars won the Cup of Nations and the country knows this is its best chance in a long time to lift the trophy. Ghana demands nothing less than a record equalling fifth title.
But if Ghana is to lift the trophy come February 10th it’ll be no mean feat. African football today boasts some of the world’s greatest talents and at least half of the nations competing will feel they have a good chance of taking the title. It promises to be a feast of football.
The teams are here, the fans are waiting, and the world’s media have arrived. As all eyes turn to Ghana, let us hope that the play on the pitch can live up to the colour and passion of the fans off it. One thing is for sure, Ghana is ready to put on one hell of a party.
As we find ourselves on the eve of another African Cup of Nations, familiar problems are raising their heads. As the respective European leagues enter the business end of their seasons, African nations are faced with a familiar struggle to pry their players from the understandably reluctant grasp of their day-to-day employers.
With no clear policy forcing clubs into releasing their players, causing a situation where the likes of Samuel Eto'o will only join their national sides a week after the African based players, the competition already has the familiar taint of anti-climax about it.
I place the blame fully at the feet of FIFA, one of the most venal, money-grubbing organisations ever to get its hands on a sporting code. African football is only paid any attention around FIFA election times, when Sepp Blatter and his cronies make hollow promise after hollow promise, only to be forgotten about almost immediately.
The competition was originally scheduled during the European season because nobody in power saw any benefit in doing otherwise. In previous decades having an African player at a European club was a rarity, and in any case, they were never important players. Africa was allowed to plod on in its own fashion, with the competition receiving far less financial support from FIFA than its European counterpart.
Technically, of course, the competition is the responsibility of CAF (Confederation of African Football) but this organisation has learnt the lessons of corruption and mismanagement that so typify its parent organisation very well.
FIFA is notoriously opposed to change, most likely through fear that any rocking of the boat will expose the viper's nest of shady deals, rigged elections and stolen funds that make up its history. A case in point being Blatter's almost hysterical refusal to contemplate the introduction of technology to ensure fair results. Doing this would remove much of the scope to engineer competitions for maximum revenue. One thinks back to the extraordinary run of refereeing decisions that saw South-Korea reach the semi-finals of the Japorea World Cup.
Only a naif and eternal optimist would think that this was not a concerted marketing push to expand advertising revenue in Asia. I will eat my own foot if an African side fails to reach at least the semi-finals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa due to some 'positive' refereeing decisions.
Thus calls to have the AFCON moved to a more convenient time, outside of the European league window, have fallen on deaf ears. The competition is not a big money spinner for the decision makers in world football, and in their shortsightedness they fail to envision it ever being one. After all, in the eyes of most Europeans, Africans are all far too impoverished to warrant being advertised to.
But football itself, regardless of who administrates it, is essentially dynamic and has refused to conform to expectations. Once European clubs realised that the stereotype of the African footballer as all flair and no application was patently untrue, players from the continent started flooding the European leagues.
There is hardly a big club left without a spine of African talent and, were one to compile an accurate list of the fifty best players in Europe, African players would undoubtedly occupy at least 25% of said list. And herein lies the current dilemma.
The AFCON has often been played in appalling conditions. Bumpy pitches, sweltering heat and poor facilities lead to injuries and, with some of the nations' FA's in dire financial straits, the chances of clubs getting compensation for a player injured on national duty are extremely slim, if not nonexistent.
Thus we have a situation where star players pick up a phantom injury days before the competition. One remembers Michael Essien being unable to play for Ghana in the 2006 tournament only to feature in a Chelsea match, apparently fully fit, less than 24-hours after Ghana's exit from the tournament.
As much as these types of deception rankle, they are completely understandable. After all, the club pay the player's wages regardless of whether he is injured or not.
Playing the tournament outside the European season will solve this problem instantly and have the added benefit of garnering a European audience that isn't distracted by their respective local leagues. This in turn will boost the revenue generated by the tournament, enabling it to become bigger and better.
This brings us to another issue. How do we get the world to take notice of the competition? The quality of football has often been poor, both through the absence of star players and because of some highly suspect selection policies.
After South Africa had won the competition at the first try following readmission, a strange thing happened to the selection of the national squad. The best players were not being selected and there was fierce opposition to including European-based players in the national squad. The reason for this? Money.
The continent's showpiece tournament has been corrupted into nothing more than a cattle market. In a country like South Africa, where the big clubs like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates have immense amounts of clout with the national FA, the competition became a money-making opportunity.
Clubs would want their own players selected in the knowledge that the tournament would be teeming with international scouts looking for the next bright prospect. The competition became a seller's paradise. And, as there is no money to be made from a player already at a European club, the quality of the national side was sacrificed in pursuit of a quick transfer buck.
Conversely this has had the effect of devaluing the local leagues but that is an issue for another day.
South Africa is certainly not the only country on the continent to suffer this problem and, unlike the reluctance of clubs to release players, this problem cannot be solved by rescheduling the competition, although it may be mitigated slightly.
Despite all these issues we should certainly still look forward to a fascinating tournament and some exciting football. It will be difficult however, not to imagine what a bit of common sense and a commitment to the African game from those in power could do to make it even better.
Well, there's always Angola in 2010.