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Flying in the face of danger at African Cup of Nations

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Steve Wilson | 14:29 UK time, Monday, 30 January 2012

I am a big fan of the African Cup of Nations having been lucky enough to cover the tournament three times, in Mali in 2002, Tunisia in 2004 and Angola in 2010.

Of these, the most enjoyable was the first, and without question the most inaccessible place I have ever watched a football match was in the heart of the Sahara desert in western Mali in Kayes, a town of about 100,000 people.

According to my guidebook, Kayes was noteworthy for one thing; being Africa's hottest town. Kayes, more than 300 miles from our BBC base in the capital, Bamako, was not accessible by road at all.

Only a driver with an intimate knowledge of how to survive in the desert would attempt to cross all those miles of the Sahara in a vehicle, and even then it would take days.

No, the only realistic way to get in and out of Kayes was by plane.

It may not come as huge surprise to hear that Air Mali was not equipped with a large fleet of shiny jets. In fact Air Mali was not over- equipped with planes of any sort. They had one. Normally it did a shuttle from Bamako to Timbuktu for tourists, but during the tournament it was ferrying VIPs to matches and was out of bounds to us.

To make up for the lack of local planes, the organisers had borrowed a nice little jet and crew from South African Airways. Lovely, sleek design, air-conditioned and safe, it was an oasis of comfort. At least that's how it looked to us members of the BBC commentary team as the South African squad boarded it for their quarter-final against Mali in Kayes later that day.

The Africa Cup of Nations brings out the best of the colour and dance from the fans. Photo: Getty

Travelling with them was the huge figure of Emmanuel Maradas, one of the senior men in Africa's governing body for football, Caf.

We had a great view of them from our seats aboard the other plane which had been acquired for the duration of the tournament. This had been borrowed, along with a pilot, from Air Armenia.

It's fair to say that when you are contemplating a trip over some of Africa's least habitable terrain, you do not necessarily want to be making that trip in the plane which Air Armenia do not want, flown by the pilot they could most do without.

After a long wait for that pilot to arrive, he finally strolled aboard from the back of the plane (I think the handles on the doors at the front had long since fallen off). He lit up a cigarette and yawned. Clearly he had recently been awoken from a deep sleep.

Muttering some prayer under my breath, I decided I did not want to watch whatever was about to happen and pulled down the window cover, which came off in my hand.

Miraculously, our flight was trouble-free. About an hour-and-a-half later we landed on the new airstrip on the outskirts of Kayes, built just a mile or so from the new football stadium.

I can confirm that the guidebook was not kidding about Kayes being hot. As the South African team emerged from the dressing rooms for kick-off, at six in the evening local time, my colleague and producer Nick Bushell showed me his thermometer - it was a tad under 120 degrees, and we were in the shade of the only roof.

For 90 minutes the South Africans ran around like they had puddles of sweat in their boots, which they probably did, and lost to Mali 2-0.

Clutching our boarding passes for the return journey and looking forward to a drink or three in Bamako, we piled on to the bus bound for the airport.

Slowly a realisation dawned on us as we bounced across the baked red earth; on the way to the stadium this bus had been half-full, now it was packed.

Clearly, our friend from Air Armenia must have made the journey from Bamako more than once that day carrying press, photographers and officials to Kayes.

Now, with light failing, what were the chances of him doing more than one flight back to the capital? I reckoned none at all. Worse still, every single person had a boarding pass for the same plane.

Even if Air Armenia let you stand in the aisles for the flight, which they probably would, the plane could not hope to hold more than about 50 people - about half the number hoping to be on board. Nick quickly checked in the guidebook for advice on overnight stays in Kayes. It was a short chapter - "Don't."

Everyone had come to the same conclusion; one small plane, one large crowd, only one flight. It was getting tense as we got off the bus on to the side of the airstrip tarmac behind a barrier manned by armed police.

Air Armenia's finest appeared and taxied to within a hundred yards of our now desperate throng. The police then removed the barrier and everyone ran for the plane waving our useless boarding cards. This was going to be the flight of the fittest and I didn't fancy my chances of getting on the plane.

Suddenly, with the masses converging, the rear door opened and there, as if by magic, at the top of the stairs was Emmanuel Maradas in his Caf blazer.

"Stop!" he bellowed. "BBC ..... BBC!" I have no idea why, and I have no idea what everyone else made of it; but this sainted angel from on high was not going to let anyone on board until my colleagues and I had taken our places. Too grateful to be worried by the injustice of it, we clambered up the steps and sheepishly sat down.

That night as I settled down under my mosquito net in my ultra-modest hotel bedroom, I have never felt so lucky and so guilty. This, I thought, is luxury.


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice to here a story from behind the scenes. Luxury is something we take for granted.

  • Comment number 2.

    Having watched every game of the African Nations Cup, one of the things that is noticeable is the diving, playacting and terrible sportsmanship of African footballers in the tournament.

    This was evident in SA 2010. with Kaká getting a ridiculous red card against the Ivory Coast, due to playing-acting from the Ivorian player involved, and the Ghanaians attempting to win any kind of free-kick in their matches, especially in the quarter-final against Uruguay.

    However, the ''staunch anti-racists''. eg. the 2010s version of ''Disgusted, from Tunbridge Wells'', will never mention it, because they form their ''opinions'' from the the current social zeitgeist, and expediently gain social currency from parroting the social memes of their day.

    For the record, I think that going to ground on contact, and exaggerating an injury, are the professional things to do, the way that game is officiated.

    However, xenophobically slamming Spanish, Portuguese or Italian players for doing this, but ignoring the similar antics of African players, just shows that ''the boy doth protest too much''... Need I say more?

    I think not.

  • Comment number 3.

    ''For the record, I think that going to ground on contact, or exaggerating an injury, is the professional thing to do, bearing in mind the way that the game is officiated.''

  • Comment number 4.

    Also, why do we hear this nonsense about the ''colour'' of the African Cup of Nations?

    We don't hear about the ''colour'' of the European Championships, with the yellow and blue of Swedish fans, the red and white of England and Denmark, the red and yellow of Spain, the red and green of Portugal, the blue of Greece and the black and white of Germany. :rollseyes:

  • Comment number 5.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 6.

    Are Equatorial Guinea really the Spain F team? Cash for passports?

    Boring tournament do far.

  • Comment number 7.

    6. At 21:20 30th Jan 2012, Rob04 wrote:

    Are Equatorial Guinea really the Spain F team?


    No worse than some of the alleged ''Irishmen'', ''Scotsmen'', ''Welshmen'' or ''Ulstermen'' who have represented those regions of the British Isles in recent decades.

  • Comment number 8.

    Chill out Rob04... just go beyond the stereotypes that still exist about African football and just enjoy the tournament. I know it is difficult for English fans to understand how a Premier League based team like Senegal can get knocked out in the first round (ITV 4's coverage in that respect has been embarrassing) but just remember football doesn't just exist in England and Spain. Good luck to Equatorial Guinea even if they are the Spanish Z team.

    The great thing about the Africa Cup of Nations is the unpredictability. Unlike the hopelessly predictable Premier League, it is really difficult to pick a winner. Just look at the Gabon - Morocco game the other night... what great entertainment. You just don't get that much anymore in the PL.

    As for the dangers of covering the Nations Cup, I have done my fair share and have only had a one of scary moment. I was held up at knife point in Durban during the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa. A helpful South African journalist friend of mine had advised me to keep £100 in my back pocket - it was enough that my ten assailants were happy but not too much that they felt they had to kill me. It saved my life. The rest of Africa is a doodle compared. What a great continent and what great football. If you have never been to a footy match in Africa, you haven't lived.

  • Comment number 9.

    Didn't say that it was worse than anyone else but then neither am I so keen to mock the Irish team as England Z?!

    What stereotypes have I mentioned? I don't associate 'boring' with football in Africa at all. Shame Eygpt are not there this time around, in previous ACNs they've been terrific to watch. The ACN is a bit like the Euro's in terms of its unpredictability at times. Usually a good tournament to watch but not so far. And not all who comment on these blogs are English or 'plastic' Spanish!

  • Comment number 10.

    Unfortunately Africa as a whole, has incredible highs but equally horrible lows.

    Such a shame beacuse after going to Zambia on many occasions you will not find more welcoming and friendly people anywhere else in the world.

    Oh and the football is great fun. The cheats are no worse than those in Europe. Remember Ronaldo (Portugese one) in his early days? It is a worldwide problem.

  • Comment number 11.

    in terms of feigning injury its fair to say africa has finally caught up.

    Overall im glad not see the proverbial failures of nigeria and cameroon etc, refereshing to see new sides and teams like Ghana with a solid football infrastructure reaping rewards.

    Yes i'm dissapointed by the quality of football in general, but it can only improve.

  • Comment number 12.

    Many years ago, I had the opportunity to see a number of games in both Northern and Central Africa. The standard of football wasn't great, compared to Europe or South America at the time but that was to be expected. However the standard of the pitches ranged from sub standard to appalling.

    Judging by recent tournaments, there has not been a great deal of progress in the standard of football played, although the influence of coaching from outside the continent is apparent for a few of the teams involved.

    I would not call the tournament boring, if i was there today because something always seems to be going on and it's not always on the pitch. But watching this years tournament on the box, it's flat and it leaves me wondering if they will ever be capable of any further progress.

  • Comment number 13.

    Nice post but I have a problem with the subtitle on the BBC Football page which includes "the difficulties of covering the Africa Cup of Nations." It's fairly accurate, but many people might not hear many more stories about the Cup of Nations or about Africa in general and I do not believe this experience is anywhere near representative of the Cup of Nations as a whole. The tournament in Ghana in 2008, for example (admittedly the only one I have seen first-hand, so people are welcome to challenge this), was held in 4 host cities which are all regularly very accessible even outside tournament time (by road and by air).

    It saddens me to hear that a senior CAF official was present in such a situation. CAF handles bids to host the cup of nations and I don't know how the body agreed to allow Mali to host it, if one of the host cities was so inaccessible and not advisable to spend a night in.

  • Comment number 14.

    Its football its on ITV4 it free, enjoy it!

  • Comment number 15.

    Have tried watching some of the games but cant.

    Really the standard is just awful...

    Someone should really show these guys how to trap a football, its a standard akin to the Scottish Premiership.

    Historically been a fan of Egypt in this competition as they always play a nice brand of passing football.

  • Comment number 16.


    Totally agree, i'd take a game between oldham and chesterfield any day...which i suppose is scottish premiership standard.

    There wasn't much colour in that game last night though...just some green and blue mainly. And i think oldham were wearing white shorts but i may be wrong. However...did you see the goal? Super stuff.

  • Comment number 17.

    2.At 20:33 30th Jan 2012, The_soul_patch_of_David_Villa wrote:
    Having watched every game of the African Nations Cup, one of the things that is noticeable is the diving, playacting and terrible sportsmanship of African footballers in the tournament.

    Have they been copying Barcelona by any chance?

  • Comment number 18.

    Steve, TIA (This is Africa) and by the way, you are always welcome. No matter how "difficult" something is to others, we always have a way of getting there! Glad to read that despite all the plane handles and knobs being out, you managed to arrive safely. Your prayers were answered. You should be grateful that you are associated with the BBC, one of the most respected and easily recognisable organisations especially here in Africa.

    We love our continent and our football, despite all its problems. And yes, there is lots of colour, music, drums and patriotism whenever our teams play. The big guns like Cameroun, Egypt, Nigeria are not there but this is what makes this CAF interesting. On any day, any team can beat the other. That is the beauty of it.

    As for the diving,you will expect that anywhere where football is played. LFC fans will remember Berbatov's dive during King Kenny's first FA Cup match at OT. Football, after all is a contact sport and some diving will be there!

    I'm a little surprised to hear that a senior CAF official supposedly opened the backdoor of a plane and shouted "Stop' to other passengers, who also had boarding passes. Isn't this unfair? Or is it African hospitality? Guess, we may never know!

  • Comment number 19.

    Love watching the ACN: great tournament, although yet to catch fire. Bit off complaining about the standard #15. If its high level technical play you want just watch La Liga or Serie A. UK-born players in England, Scotland, NIreland or Wales are not exactly known for their high-level technical gifts. Perhaps you should go back to Oldham v Chesterfield and discussing loft insultation prices!

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    As a Newcastle fan, I am very happy to see senegal out of the competition early! Just means we can bring the Demba's back earlier than expected! All we need now is Mr Tiote on the plane home and i'll be consuming an ale to celebrate!

  • Comment number 22.

    The standard of football in this tournament has been dire- and I am sure it is not racist, xenophobic or stereotypical to say so.

    I am really disappointed that Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon and South Africa did not qualify. I can't quite understand why they didn't because I am sure they are better than some of the joke teams I have seen here- Botswana, anyone?

    I also think that Equatorial Guinea's recruitment of mercenary players is an absolute disgrace- something else that FIFA should do something about, but won't.

  • Comment number 23.

    I don't understand the high profile of the African Cup on the BBC compared to failing miserably to even report the scores of the Copa America some months ago. Thanks God for ESPN!

  • Comment number 24.

    Vox Populi
    The standard of football in this tournament has been dire- and I am sure it is not racist, xenophobic or stereotypical to say so.

    The standard is awful, and there is nowt wrong with stating a fact. I wrote @12
    how I thought the standard of football had hardly progressed since the 70's when i had the opportunity to see several matches on the continent. In both Northern and Central Africa.

    I was wrong, having thought about it since I wrote that, the standard has improved but it is in the areas that we would all like to see removed from the game of football, the diving and blatant cheating.

    Sadly there are some talented footballers at the tournament, who seem to have forgotten how to play football.

  • Comment number 25.


    Yes the difference between the Copa and the ACN is like chalk and cheese. Fortunately like you I was able to watch the Copa and enjoyed it.

    As for coverage, you'd have thought there would be at least in depth reports on the Copa.

    I can understand the free to air TV companies, not showing the Copa live because of the time difference. Matches being played in the early hours of the morning UK time, will not get massive viewing figures but a highlights show would have been useful for some.

    Maybe it has a cost issue when it comes to the Copa as opposed to the ACN coverage. The Copa has, in the past, been shown on national TV, it may well be there was a lack of interest by the UK viewer to the tournament.

  • Comment number 26.

    The_soul_patch_of_David_Villa sounds like a right empty barrel of laughs.

  • Comment number 27.

    Great article and I can assure you things like all passengers having boarding passes for the flight are pretty common for internal flights in Africa.

    All the same, I am looking for the Chipolopolo Boys to go all the way this time and lift the cup - sentiment may be playing on my mind but the Copper Bullets deserve to win this one - it will be a worthy trophy for the guys that died on that ill fated trip off the Gulf of Guinea.

    Good luck Herve and the Copper Bullets.

  • Comment number 28.

    Having lived in Zambia in the 1980s and watched the Zambian greats such as Godfrey "Uca" Chitalu, Boniface Sinyangwe, Moses Simwala, Peter M'hango, Kalusha Bwalya, Donwell Yobe (my school mate in Lusaka) and a host of other Zambian greats, I just wish that this Zambian team goes all the way to hoist the trophy come the end of the tournament.

    I remember the fiery radio commentator, Dennis Liwewe who was so passionate about Zambian soccer that he cried on radio after a match when Zambia lost at home. He was my favourite commentator and the countries number one soccer fan being the great man himself - the father of the nation - Kenneth David Kaunda. Bless him and the Zambian people who are close to my heart.

  • Comment number 29.

    I am very sure people are not forced to watch the African Cup of nations. The tournament has been a good watch so far, and I have enjoyed watching it. It is raw football and it has been played in good spirit. I would have loved to see the big teams of Africa in the tournament, but everybody had a chance to qualify and they did not, so fair play to those that qualified.

    Football must not always be played like the Europeans, and a lot of people complaining on here do not realise how boring it is to watch the English national team. I would watch Botswana v Sudan anyday over England.

    Eq. Guinea, did not break any rules to have the naturalised player, France won the world cup in 1998 with a lot of players from African decent. If you do not know much about the game in Africa and you are not prepared to give it a chance, switch channels and stop criticising it!

  • Comment number 30.

    The standard is awful, and there is nowt wrong with stating a fact.
    You are stating an opinion. Now that is a fact!

    Football must not always be played like the Europeans, and a lot of people complaining on here do not realise how boring it is to watch the English national team. I would watch Botswana v Sudan anyday over England.
    Couldn't agree more with you there. Watching England is no more than a mogadon substitute for the clinically depressed.

    They were even too scared to come out and play football with Spain recently...and that was a friendly international!

    But on the other hand people can comment on what they like and do not like about any level of football. No need to get defensive about it. Just argue back.

    And most the French 1998 WC squad were born in France!

  • Comment number 31.

    To the patch of
    David Villa
    "No worse than some of the alleged ''Irishmen'', ''Scotsmen'', ''Welshmen'' or ''Ulstermen'' who have represented those regions of the British Isles in recent decades."
    How about looking at your own country first,start with the English cricket team.

  • Comment number 32.

    Rob 04
    I did not compare the standard of football in Africa to England. I merely agreed with a poster who stated it was dire and please to not try to say it is good football because the standard and actual games have been awful in Africa.
    It is raw football and it has been played in good spirit.

    What exactly is 'raw football' because i have no idea, I've heard of a poor standard of football because that is what I have witnessed for the last few tournaments. If the games were played in good spirit then they would be far more entertaining than the rubbish being played.

    As for the switch off comment, I'll reverse it, don't watch football from elsewhere. Oh I don't think you do anyway because your judging the rubbish that is being played at the ACN as a good game of football.


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