Guest column

Prince Dornu-Leiku is a columnist from Ghana and will follow the action in Africa leading up to the 2010 World Cup.

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Africa's new big idea

    My dearest Ghana, Libya, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia were among 11 winners who over the weekend negotiated their ways into the 1st Round stage of the African Nations Championship after overcoming 11 other opponents in the preliminary round over two legs. Libya, held 1-1 at home in the first leg surprised Tunisia by beating the Carthage Eagles 6-5 on penalties after holding their hosts to a similar scoreline in Sousse, an indication of the shock results the CHAN promises even this early.

    As you might have heard by now, the CHAN is the Confederation of African Football's new bi-annual tournament designed for players based in local leagues of its affiliated member nations. The maiden competition is slated for the Ivory Coast from February 22 to March 8 next year. The regulation that the tournament is open only to players playing in the domestic leagues certainly underlines the notion that the competition is CAF's strategy to strengthen the national leagues of its member countries. And in the long term, it should also strengthen the African Champions' League as club sides which will provide players for the local national teams must strengthen their squads with quality materials. This in turn means African national teams preparing to host the rest of the football world as SA 2010 comes into focus, will be blessed to have home-grown talents as the backbones of their teams. The European experience and exposure of Africa's foreign-based players cannot be underestimated for competition with the Brazils, Frances, Italys, Germanys and Argentinas of this football world, but local experience can also be key.

    But there is no margin for error. There are so many talented players in Africa whose worth does not get even the opportunity to be assessed because they can't get chances in their national teams due to the avalanche of foreign-based players available. The CHAN no doubt presents the opportunity for Africa's 'unknown' players to rise to the fore in an international competition.

    The fact that only players playing for clubs in the local leagues are eligible obviously should be good news to the traditional superpowers of African football whose club sides have often struggled against North African opposition in continental club competitions in recent decades, and has as a result also given North African national football teams, no matter how few they might be, a slight lead over their rest of the continent buddies. The CHAN would also no doubt promote professionalism and also enhance competition in the African Champions' League as well as promoting its revenue generating capabilities and ultimately succeed in keeping many of Africa's best players plying their trades on the continent. The constant exodus to Europe and elsewhere of the best players of such powerhouses as Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon has deprived the club sides of the quality players needed to battle on the continental front. But how Africa - at large but particularly the CHAN - can fund this overtime to be able to convince the best players to stay on the continent let alone provide the infrastructural and logistics base to hone the skills of these players to match their Europe-based colleagues, is the biggest question.

    North African clubs on the other hand have thrived on the continental stage because of the retention of their players on the domestic front by clubs who are run professionally, maintain effective infrastructural base as well as god remunerations for the players. That is why Egypt could have as many as 18 of their 23-man squad to Ghana 2008 playing in the Egyptian League whilst Ghana (3), Nigeria (0), Ivory Coast (1) and Cameroon (1) had a total of 5 players playing in their domestic leagues in their combined squads. Of these, only Ghana's Harrison Afful who plays for the famous Asante Kotoko saw second half action (of the unheralded.3rd place play-off) in the entire tournament. It is also noteworthy that the only home-based players Ivory Coast and Cameroon had were reserve goalies as was Ghana's third choice safe hands Fatau Dauda.

    The result? North African clubs have eclipsed the Sub-Saharan sides in supremacy on the continent. The history of the African Clubs Championship/Champions League says it all. The competition started in 1964/65 when Ghana's first President, Kwame Nkrumah, donated the trophy to be competed for among Africa's top clubs, part of his goal for a United States of Africa. Cameroon's Oryx Douala of course defeated Stade Malien of Mali 2-1 in the first final to set the stage for what will turn out to be a Sub-Saharan Africa dominance. Stade Abidjan of Ivory Coast beat another Mali team AS Real Bamako in the final of 1966 and for the opening 16 years of the annual competition, the Sub-Saharan dominance intensified. In fact, just Ismaili of Egypt in 1969 and Algeria's MC Algiers seven years later were clubs from North Africa to achieve success in Africa's flagship club competition.

    Then came competition number 17 in 1981. Up stepped JE Tizi-Ouzou with a decisively comprehensive 5-0 aggregate victory over AS Vita Club to clinch the title and also set the tone for a North African renaissance in African club football. For the next 26 competitions beginning in 1982, North Africa have been denied the title just 6 times. Ghana's Asante Kotoko (1983), Orlando Pirates of South Africa (1995), ASEC Mimosas of Ivory Coast (1998), Hearts of Oak of Ghana (2000) and Enyimba of Aba who won Nigeria's firstand 2nd African club titles in the successive years of 2003 and 2004 were the only exceptions in the rule of North African successes in the African Clubs Championships.

    But the good news for Sub-Saharan African countries is that a reversal of fortunes in continental club football may be at hand very soon and the African Nations Championships could provide a unique breakthrough. The metamorphosis of the tournament into its league format in 1997 has given clubs other than those in the North of the continent a chance for success in the competition. Current holders Tunisia's Etoile Sportive du Sahel's victory over Al Ahly in the 2007 final last November ensured a 3rd straight North African success in the Champions' League, only the first time it had happened in the 11 years of the league format. So gradually the club sides of the Sub-Saharan countries are getting back into the picture and from several countries too as we saw Sudanese sides do in both the Champions' League and Confederations' Cup last year as have clubs from Angola in recent years. More importantly, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria - clearly the countries in addition to Cameroon on whom Africa can really count on to win the continent's first FIFA World Cup title - are those outside the North African parenthesis to achieve success in the CAF Champions' League. So what will the CHAN offer to these countries' clubs and eventually main national teams? We shall find out soon. Just read on.

    Egypt which boast the two clubs - Ahly and Cairo rival Zamalek - with the record for most wins of five each in the history of the African Clubs Championship, have turned the dominance of Ahly in particular in recent years into success of the national team. Of the 18 home-based players in the Pharaohs' 2008 Nations Cup winning squad, 12 played for Ahly alone. The fact that they play at one club and have a compact, tactical and day-to-day knowledge and understanding of many another, best explains the fluidity and organizational play of the Egyptians as compared to Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Also noteworthy is that in all the countries which have produced winners in African club football, just two or at most three clubs have achieved such success no matter how many times the particular country's name has been paraded on the winners' podium.

    What this means is that the CHAN teams of these countries will mainly be formed from the nucleus of two main clubs with few additions here and there. These two main clubs are strengthened in themselves to do battle in the African Champions' League thereby enhancing its competitiveness. Since the CHAN teams are also handled by the main national team handlers, it is easy for players of international quality to be easily identified, groomed and promoted to the main national team without even earning foreign contracts. So in effect, as there are no doubts that many of Africa's domestic leagues abound in vast array of talents, many of Africa's national teams are soon going to become like Egypt and have the backbone of the national team based in the local leagues.

    The CHAN definitely will also help improve infrastructure as many of these national teams are forced to host big games in remote areas of their countries. Ghana played its first leg against Niger in Tamale, the first time a national team match had taken place in the Northern Regional capital. The newly built 20,000 capacity stadium was built for the recent Ghana 2008 Africa Cup of Nations and has now helped take national team football to the deprived North for the first time. Same story unfolded in Tunisia where the game against Libya was shifted from Tunis to Mediterranean resort of Sousse, home of giants and reigning African Champions Etoile Sportive. Also, the fact that African countries now have another competition to host in between the years of the highly-regarded Africa Cup of Nations and the ever-growing calendar list of continental football events at various levels for both male and female, infrastructure are set to definitely be improved and built for the possibility of hosting the CHAN. Ivory Coast got the maiden edition without any hustle and also without any explanation why but subsequent ones are going to be bid for, competitively.

    But like any other event in Africa, organizational lapses may yet be the undoing of this. The early rounds have been geographically distributed in that neighbours are playing each other right up until the seven eventual qualifiers are identified. This obviously limits the financial burdens on travel costs for most of the associations. But with no concrete sponsorship for the event yet, the only headache for now is how long Africa can last with this before the organization falls apart.

    Another problem could be fatigue for the players who may have to play for both the CHAN and main national teams as in the case of Egypt. Can they cope? With the huge number of matches players of particularly Al Ahly play, the Pharaohs could suffer from the fatigue syndrome much as the CHAN may be an easy call for them. But if Hassan Shehata cares about the future of his team, he could select other players other than the mainstream Pharaohs players for the CHAN team thereby keeping the likes of Mohammed Aboutrika for main Pharaohs duty whilst gifting other youngsters the opportunity to hone their talents. Ghana for instance, we are using players under 23 years of age for the CHAN side why veteran forward and former Black Stars captain Emmanuel Osei Kuffour who is in top shape for league leaders Asante Kotoko as well as Hearts of Oak's Francis Bossman have not got a chance in. Sadly, the Egyptians who have been contestants at the start of every CAF competition, have opted out of the CHAN, a day after I originally wrote this piece. The refusal by Egyptian football authorities not to use their U-20 national team against what they termed "established players" of other opponents in the CHAN just about four months to the 2009 U-20 World Cup which Egypt hosts, is a sad judgement indeed. I believe the Young Pharaohs would have been well tutored for the World Youth Championship by taking part in the CHAN. After all, the main tournament of the CHAN will involve only 8 sides after Egypt which will have entered the qualifiers at the 1st Round stage, will have negotiated just two home and away qualifying battles.

    All in all, the CHAN despite all the criticism among football fans around the continent to be a waste of time and resources, should be acknowledged to be a welcome new addition to African football. Organisation, the main impediment in any African endeavour, is the biggest challenge here again, let's see how the old continent does as the 1st Round are honoured in early May and concluded a fortnight before the main battle to identify Africa's five representatives alongside hosts South Africa for the first FIFA World Cup to be staged in Africa, begins.

Watch here in a month's time as the countdown to 2010 starts...



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