Fallen African nations have more woes than soccer

DURBAN Mon Jun 28, 2010 5:09pm IST

Nigeria's coach Lars Lagerback looks on during the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against Greece at Free State stadium in Bloemfontein June 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Christian Charisius/Files

Nigeria's coach Lars Lagerback looks on during the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against Greece at Free State stadium in Bloemfontein June 17, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Charisius/Files

DURBAN (Reuters) - Too much pressure on top players with massive egos? Chopping managers just before competitions? Poor coaching and facilities at home? Pampered foreign players not giving their all for the national colours?

Many explanations have been sought for why five of the six African nations stumbled at the first hurdle in the continent's first World Cup. But perhaps it has nothing to do with soccer. Maybe countries need to feel good about themselves to succeed.

Ghana became the third African side to make it to the quarter-finals on Saturday by beating the United States 2-1 and repeating the success of Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002. They now face Uruguay in the next round.

The four other sides to qualify, Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, all crashed out. The hosts South Africa, who would not have qualified for the competition based on their recent form, also lost out.

Stripping out the South African host nation anomaly, various rankings on indicators such as democracy, corruption, violence and war show Ghana should indeed have been the best performers.

Ghana was the first African nation to achieve independence in 1957 -- a source of national pride mentioned by hero Asamoah Gyan after scoring the winning goal against the United States -- but then endured a bloody episode of coups and dictatorships.

But from 1996, Ghana has held four reasonably free and fair elections, with power switching peacefully between traditional northern and southern tribal powerbases.

In 2008, the candidate for the incumbent party conceded after being edged out by less than half a percentage point -- a margin that would have been shrugged off by some sitting African presidents as a statistical glitch.

Ghana also takes pride in the fact it was the first sub-Saharan African country visited by Barack Obama, a reward the U.S president put down Ghana's huge democratic strides in a continent often blighted by rigged and disputed elections.

"Yes we can!" shouted the popular Joy FM radio station after Ghana's triumph over the Stars and Stripes.

The country, which has traditionally depended on cocoa and gold exports, will start pumping oil this year and is expected to have one the highest growth rates in 2011 at 15 percent.

AUTHORITARIAN REGIMES

Looking at the indicators, South Africa does come top, but few would deny the continent's biggest economy still has serious social and political issues simmering below the party atmosphere beamed across the globe during the continent's first World Cup.

The last time the soccer team achieved anything significant was winning the African Nations Cup in 1996, in South Africa -- two years after Nelson Mandela swept to power and a year after the unfancied Springbok rugby team lifted the World Cup at home.

Ghana, however, is a firm second. On Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, the West African country comes in as the 69th least corrupt nation in the world, above European qualifiers Greece and Serbia.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit's democracy index, Ghana also comes well behind South Africa. The host nation is classed as a flawed democracy while Ghana is deemed a hybrid regime, a category between flawed democracy and authoritarian regime.

But that index reflected the situation as of September 2008, three months before Ghana's latest democratic handover of power that won plaudits from around Africa and the world.

As for the other four teams to go home after the group stage -- Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria -- they are all classed as authoritarian regimes and also nestle at the bottom of the corruption rankings.

Eight years after civil war erupted in Ghana's neighbour Ivory Coast, the former French colony remains divided with a rebel held north and a government controlled south and mired in a "neither peace nor war" mentality.

In 2007, totemic striker Didier Drogba -- born in the southern economic capital Abidjan -- helped arrange for Ivory Coast to play an African Nations Cup qualifier in the rebel capital Bouake -- the birthplace of Kolo and Yaya Toure. Some described the move as the culmination of the peace process.

But attempts to hold the first presidential elections since a disputed poll in 2000 have repeatedly been scuppered by differences over rebel disarmament and voting lists.

Ivory Coast is the lowest ranked of the six African nations both for corruption and democracy.

Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, has repeatedly failed to live up to its promise on the Africa and world stage, despite boasting stars playing in European leagues.

It is a country plagued with endemic corruption, shambolic infrastructure, weak regulation and elections that have consistently fallen short of international standards.

Obama's decision to visit Ghana was also seen as a snub in Nigeria.

Nigeria's nobel prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka praised the U.S. president's choice, noting the positive transformation that has occured in Ghana and the "colossal scale" of Nigeria's corruption.

The last time Algeria reached the World Cup finals was in 1986, shortly before a wave of social unrest that ultimately led to fighting between Islamist rebels and government forces known as the "black years" which killed thousands of people.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the violence has declined. Now there are just occasional attacks by a rump of militants operating as the North African wing of al Qaeda.

As for Cameroon, President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, winning a series of elections the opposition has deemed unfair.

The constitution was tweaked in 2008 so Biya could stand again in 2011 and the International Crisis Group think-tank reckons there are multiple risks of conflict ahead of the vote.

One Cameroonian in South Africa said the state of democracy in his nation could be assessed by one simple indicator: which were the only two teams to leave South Africa with no points?

Cameroon, and North Korea.

(Editing by Nigel Hunt)

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