Who to support at AFCON2015?

*Warning – the following might contain actual footballing information*

The 2015 African Cup of Nations Tournament kicks off in next week and despite Morocco’s withdrawal as host (and subsequent ban from participation) due to fears of Ebola, the Tournament will go forward with Equatorial Guinea hosting and taking Morocco’s spot.  Of the 16 teams participating, five – Algeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are affected by landmines. This year’s tournament may be the most open as traditional powers, (and winners of four of the last five tournaments) Nigeria and Egypt, did not qualify and as many as ten of the 16 teams have a realistic chance of winning.  In terms of the draw, Group A (Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville) looks to the easiest and Groups C and D will compete for the title of “Group of Death” with Ghana, Algeria, South Africa and Senegal in Group C and Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon and Guinea in Group D.  Group B (Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of Congo) is no slouch, though.

Here at Landmines in Africa, we restrict our rooting interests to landmine-affected countries.  Zambia recently finished landmine clearance and Ivory Coast destroyed a newly discovered stockpile of mines, acts which we applaud heartily but also disqualify them from our support.  So, here are the arguments for and against supporting the five mine-affected countries (in descending order of their odds of winning the tournament as supplied by Bet365.com on January 9, 2015):

Democratic Republic of Congo, Leopards (34 to 1): The Democratic Republic of Congo has been surveying and trying to determine the full extent of landmine contamination in the country.  In most places, the density of contamination is very low so large areas are reported as landmine-contaminated, but the actual number to be cleared is small.  For the DRC, the biggest problem has been stability and security to allow the survey and clearance work to go forward as most contamination is in the eastern parts of the country which have been subject to numerous conflicts since the 1990s.  DRC recently received a six-year extension to clear its remaining minefields which it will do at 0.21 km2 per year and a total cost of US $20 million.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was the third-best team in Cup qualifying behind Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.  They have one of the best home-grown squads and should be good enough to get out their group, but “should” doesn’t always equal “will.”

 

Mali, Eagles (15 to 1): Mali’s landmine situation is worsening.  For years the country had minimal contamination from internal conflicts, until the 2012 Tuareg uprising and seizure of northern Mali by Islamist forces which has sparked a highly unstable insurgency.  French forces defeated the Islamists and brought the Tuaregs back onside, but the subsequent United Nations peacekeeping mission has been targeted for numerous attacks.  Rumors suggest that Islamist forces are monitoring peacekeepers’ movements and placing mines in the roads before UN vehicles.  The conflict and landmine contamination is confined to the northern regions of the country, but as a recent attack shows, the Islamists are willing and able to strike at government installations nearer the capital of Bamako.

Football-wise, Mali was a semifinalist in each of the last two Cup of Nations tournaments and has the potential to upset some of the favorites.  Having said that, a third straight semi-final appearance is unlikely with leading striker Cheick Diabate of Bordeaux ruled out for injury and the presence of Ivory Coast and Cameroon in the Group.

 

Senegal, Teranga Lions (13 to 1): Senegal has a great football pedigree and some of the best strikers in the world.  They will be without West Ham United star Diafra Sakho but will content themselves by re-uniting former Newcastle teammates Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse supported by Sadio Mane of Southampton and Dame N’Doye of Locomotiv Moscow.  They will look to outscore the other teams in this Group of Death and should be able to advance and a semi-final appearance is not out of the question.

As for the landmines, Senegal’s recent history is not so good.  Most demining has completely halted and the government shows little ambition to re-start the program in earnest.  In terms of contamination, Senegal has very few landmines and the technical resources exist in the country to quickly and efficiently address the issue.  What Senegal lacks is the political will to do so, citing the ongoing low-level insurgency in the Casamance region.  If we talking strictly about football, Senegal would be a fun choice to follow, but we’re talking landmines and Senegal has not been a leader there.

 

Tunisia, Carthage Eagles (9 to 1): As recently as 2012, Tunisia was able to call itself landmine-free.  The country had, with very little external assistance, cleared all known minefields dating back to World War II and the Algerian liberation war.  Then, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring (and Tunisia remains the success story from those movements), Islamists groups took root in the Kasserine region dominated by Mount Chaambi along the border with Algeria.  These Islamist have used landmines to protect their hideouts in the mountains and interrupt military patrols.  While most of the victims of these mines have been security forces, some civilians have also been injured.  Despite these mines and the radical forces that have used them, Tunisia has kept itself on a path towards democratic reform as seen in last month’s elections.

Tunisia is a surprisingly strong football nation, having won the Cup when they hosted in 2004 and runners-up in 1965 and 1996, and semifinalists in 1962, 1978 and 2000; a similar record to this year’s favorites, Algeria who were winners in 1990 (as hosts), runners up in 1980 and semifinalists in 1982, 1984, 1988 and 2010.  Look to the Tunisians to advance out of their group and make a very strong run to the final.  They were undefeated in qualifying and will see this year as a good one to make some noise.

 

Algeria, Fennec Foxes (5.5 to 1): After a great World Cup appearance last year, Algeria are the team to beat at this year’s AFCON.  Yacine Brahimi, the Porto-based midfielder, was just named “Most Promising Talent” by the Confederation of African Football, and will serve as the team’s anchor. However, Algeria are also in a very tough group and the stadium they will be playing in is in Mongomo on the far eastern border.  Mongomo is the hometown of Equatorial Guinea’s dictators, Francisco Macias Nguema and Teodoro Obian Nguema (the current “president”), and the stadium seats all of 4,000 people and was not used in 2012 when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the Cup with Gabon.  The pitch was bare earth until sod was recently laid by a Spanish firm in order to prepare it for the tournament.  Call me cynical, but I expect the state of the pitch will be a frequent source of complaints by the players and managers.  Having said that, Algeria should make it out of the group and fulfill their promise as tournament favorites.

Algeria, like Tunisia, has landmine contamination dating back to World War II, but also saw millions of mines laid by the French during the liberation war of the 1950s and 1960s.  At one point, Algeria was one of the most landmine-contaminated countries with over 11 million mines.  Since clearance began in the 1990s (after the end of the civil war in Algeria), nine million mines have been cleared and every month more mines are cleared and Algeria anticipates completing clearance in 2017.  In addition, Norwegian People’s Aid recently called Algeria’s mine action program the best in the world, especially since Algeria relies on almost no external assistance.

So, Algeria is a tournament favorite and a great model for landmine clearance, so that’s our pick, right?  No.  Landmines in Africa will be backing Tunisia in the 2015 African Cup of Nations.  Why?  Because Tunisia continues on a path of democracy while other Arab Spring states have descended into civil war (Libya, Syria, Yemen) or hardening dictatorship (Egypt, Bahrain).  Tunisia has completed its landmine clearance obligations once before, it will do so again.  Because some things are more important than football (despite the protestations of Bill Shankly), we’re supporting Tunisia this year.  We love what Algeria has accomplished in mine action, but we admire Tunisia political transition in addition to its mine action program.  Plus, Carthage Eagles is a great team name.

Michael P. Moore

January 9, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

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