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No Redemption

Joe Opio/The New Vision/Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

SCENE I: David Seaman is caught at sea as Ronaldinho’s long-distance free-kick sails over his head to cost England a semi-final place at the 2002 World Cup. He’s castigated in media but granted another chance to make an even worse blunder against Macedonia four months later.

SCENE II: Pierre Wome misses a penalty which denies Cameroon a ticket to the 2006 World Cup. He is declared Public Enemy number one. His property is vandalized, his relatives hounded, his wife’s business torched and his international career brought to an abrupt end.

Robert Green should thank God for small mercies. After a shocking howler on Saturday that cost England a win against the US, the England goalkeeper must have woken up the next morning solely worried about retaining the gloves in Fabio Capello’s starting line-up. Only an accident of birth could afford Green such luxuries.

Had he been born in Africa, butter-fingered Green would have had a whole lot more to fret over than just Capello’s faith. Like the safety of his own kith and kin, for example.

Football fans are, by their very nature, a notoriously fickle lot. Yet even by prevailing standards, fans in Africa are capricious to a fault. Like a woman trapped in that proverbial time of the month, moods among African fans don’t just swing; they veer from one extreme to another with no warning signs whatsoever. Multitudes of African footballers have gone from hero to zero in a split-second. And while fans from other parts of the world give their disgraced heroes a chance to redeem themselves, Africans afford fallen idols no such charity.

While English fans will forgive and grant Green a chance to redeem himself sooner or later, Africans afford disgraced idols no such leniency.

Green isn’t the first England goalkeeper to blunder at the big stage. In fact, since David Seaman let Ronaldinho’s 42-yard free-kick float over his despairing grasp in 2002, England custodians have turned dodgy goalkeeping gaffes into some sort of national trademark. Paul Robinson air-kicked an innocuous back-pass into his own net against Croatia in 2006, and Scott Carson let a routine Niko Kranjcar shot slip under him months later. The cumulative result of both those errors was England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

Yet, aside from lukewarm national derision, one can’t say that Seaman, Robinson and Carson lived to really regret the error of their ways. At least, not in the same manner than disgraced African heroes normally do.

Just ask Pierre Wome!

In 2000, Wome was hailed as a national hero when he scored the penalty that won Cameroon an Olympic gold. Just five years later, though, all of that was forgotten when Wome crashed a decisive penalty against the woodwork to cost Cameroon an invite to the 2006 World Cup. Unlike Baggio, a heartbroken Wome found few sympathizers in Yaounde.

That Wome had sent the goalkeeper the wrong way before being denied a goal mattered little. He had missed and that was that, ill-luck couldn’t be cited as a mitigating factor. Neither could a sparkling track record that had seen him help Cameroon to two successive Nations Cup victories. Cheers turned to jeers even before Wome’s shot rebounded back into play. The defender was demonized and declared persona non grata in Cameroon. His house and car were vandalized until the army intervened. Not satisfied, irate fans took out their fury against Wome’s loved ones; torching his wife’s salon business and harassing his family.

While the English team rallied around Green post-match Saturday, just as it closed ranks around Seaman, Robinson and Carson, Wome wasn’t so lucky. Even team mates, wary of guilt by association, declined to stand by him where normal circumstances dictated they close ranks around their vilified colleague and stand as one. For Wome’s team mates though, circumstances were far from normal.

Post-Wome miss, the entire team were detained in their dressing room for two hours as fans bayed for their blood outside. It had taken a squadron of soldiers to smuggle the petrified Indomitable Lions out, after which fans ran berserk on the streets of Yaounde.

“It is very hard to have had everything in your own hands and throw it all away in the final seconds,” striker Samuel Eto’o stated on reaching safety.

Tasked to explain by a suspicious media why Wome had been left to take such a critical spot-kick, Eto’o chose to throw his team mate to the wolves instead. “I went to take it, but Wome came up to me and said he was really confident of scoring,” he said.

An outcast Wome went into hiding. It was only after returning to the relative refuge of his club, Inter Milan, that he confronted Eto’o’s claims.

“I’m very angry with Eto’o because what he said isn’t true. No one wanted to take that penalty. No one. Neither Samuel Eto’o nor our captain Rigobert Song, because they knew what could have happened if they missed. They were on the pitch with me, they know this.”

Despite anticipating some sort of fury at his miss, Wome revealed he had been traumatized by the sheer magnitude of the public reaction: “I knew it would be tough if I had missed. The fans wanted to, and could have, killed me. But apart from my own personal regret, I think of my relatives who live in Cameroon. I thought about them before going back to the dressing room. At the end of the match I asked the police how they were. They told me they would take care of my family's security. The fans caused some material damage. They also destroyed cars and houses they thought were mine, but at least my relatives have round-the-clock security now. I had to flee here to feel totally safe.”

Wome’s parting words were more telling. Asked by an incredulous Italian media if what he had experienced was par for the course, he responded quite matter of factly: “Yes, it really is. Football is important in Cameroon, too important. If everything goes well, it's extraordinary. But if it goes badly...”

Ivorians and Patriotism

Wome’s fate and football being “too important” are two things Ivorians are familiar with.

In 2000, after a lacklustre exit from the Nations Cup, the entire Ivorian team flew home only to be accosted by armed escorts at the airport in Abidjan. Taken aback by the unorthodox reception, the team’s initial bewilderment turned to alarm when their welcoming committee chauffeured them to a military base.

They were detained incommunicado for an entire week. Prominent among the detainees was a certain Bonaventure Kalou, elder brother to current Ivorian star Salomon.

Initially, the government insisted the players were being given mandatory lessons in nationalism, an exercise deemed essential after their unpatriotic performances in the abortive finals. But as outrage and pressure rose from FIFA and the footballers’ European clubs for them to be released, the government amended its position. It claimed that the squad was being held for its own protection, to guard against possible reprisals by livid fans.

The team was eventually freed but cynics claimed the impromptu lessons imparted by the military were what the doctor had prescribed. Following that infamous episode, Ivory Coast, a slumbering giant till then, started growing from strength to strength. A decade after their farcical confinement, heirs to the detainees have not only become an African football powerhouse, they have crowned their rise with a historic second successive appearance at the World Cup this summer.

Perhaps Didier Drogba and his compatriots will be granted extra motivation by the fact that for them, lessons of spineless failure are still too raw to forget. How they acquit themselves in South Africa will determine whether the Elephants remain heroes in the eyes of their compatriots or not. Whatever the odds, the Ivorians and other African envoys to the 2010 showpiece will be loath to emulate the dubious feat of Zaire [since renamed Democratic Republic of Congo] at the 1974 edition in Germany.

Mobutu’s Zaire Humiliated


The Zaire players were lauded as demi-gods after becoming the first black Africans to qualify for the World Cup. A grateful president Mobutu Sese Seko lavished his team with gifts, granting them houses, cars and a state-sponsored shopping holiday to the US with their entire families.

Mwepu Ilunga, a defender in that team, remembered the post-qualification celebrations vividly.

“Mobutu’s generals were so jealous of the gifts we were given that he had to buy them a car each, to keep them quiet.”

That spell of acclaim proved short-lived after the amateurs of Zaire endured a harrowing trip to Germany, losing all three matches. After a 2-0 defeat by Scotland in their opener, Zaire’s second game against Yugoslavia was a ritual humiliation; with the resultant 9-0 loss deemed a personal embarrassment to Mobutu.

“After that match, Mobutu sent his presidential guards to threaten us,” Ilunga revealed. “They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to [defending champions] Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.”

That ultimatum hovered over their necks like the Sword of Damocles. Subsequently, the terror-stricken footballers approached their encounter against Brazil as more a life-saving operation than a football match; a do-or-die tie in every sense of the phrase. With Zaire trailing 3-0 and still on the precipice of safety, Brazil were awarded a free-kick outside the box. As the Brazilians lined up, waiting for the referee’s whistle to take the free-kick, Ilunga amused everyone gathered by breaking free from the defensive wall and walloping the dead ball into the distance.

He was booked for his troubles and lectured on the rules of set-pieces by the referee. Ilunga insists that his moment of madness wasn’t due to a disturbing ignorance of the basic rules of the game. It was instead an impulsive side-effect of the extraordinary stress the entire team had had to endure in the build-up to the game.

“We had been ordered not to lose by 4-0,” Ilunga states. “Brazil was one goal away from achieving that at the time of the free-kick. I panicked and kicked the ball away before Brazil had taken it. Most of the Brazil players, and the crowd too, thought it was hilarious. I shouted, ‘You bastards!’ at them because they didn’t understand the pressure we were under.”

Zaire eventually kept the score line at 3-0, and the players were allowed to return home; not so much with their heads held high, but at least they still had them, as one pundit mused.

Ilunga wasn’t mollified though.

“Our campaign didn’t go according to plan,” Ilunga once admitted. “Going to the World Cup, we had the erroneous belief that we would be returning as millionaires. But after those matches, Mobutu believed we had set back the perception of African football 20 years. We got back home without a penny in our pockets. Our wages and allowances were withheld, our contracts torn up.”

To make matters worse, a disappointed government withdrew the team from qualification for the next World Cup in 1978.

“I now live as a tramp,” a disillusioned Ilunga discloses. “If I had my time again, I would work harder at becoming a farmer.”

The disgraceful treatment of Ilunga and his colleagues might have happened more than three decades ago. But it is moral lesson about the fleeting nature of celebrities in African football, and it still resonates on the continent today.  

The Recent Case in Senegal


Just last year, Senegal failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and paid a hefty price.

The team’s setback triggered an outbreak of violence that saw fans torch buses, wreck the Senegalese FA headquarters and erect barricades of burning tyres in the capital, Dakar.

El Hadj Diouf and team mates Salif Diao and Henri Camara had been hailed as national treasures after leading Senegal to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.

Following the failure, however, they instantly came under attack as rioting fans pelted them with rocks and glass bottles after breaking down the stadium fencing and invading the pitch. It took armed riot police to hold off the human tide, escort the players back to their dressing-room where they remained barricaded for three hours before being smuggled out through a side exit.  

A dazed Diouf mourned the unrest as, “a tragic end for the golden generation of Senegalese players”. While coach Lamine Ndiaye was resigned to his role as the designated sacrificial lamb.

“This is a complex country,” Ndiaye said. “If I talk about what happened after the match, I risk getting done in. I know the FA won’t be slow to sack me in order to calm everyone down.”

No Room for Redemption

Maybe such fickle ways are a splendid advert of the religious significance football carries in Africa. Maybe they just prove that African fans perceive heroism and villainy as two faces of the same coin. Whatever one’s interpretation, a single truth is inescapable: In Africa, football isn’t just a game.

Wome’s penalty miss turned him into a national pariah and effectively ended his international career. Football authorities, wary of a public backlash upon granting a hate figure clemency, treated Wome like a Biblical leper. He was frozen out of the national team despite glorious performances at some of Europe’s leading clubs.

“I met with FA officials three years later and I thought all had been forgiven, but apparently this is not the case,” lamented Wome as he announced his retirement.

It is doubtful Green will suffer a similar fate. Like Seaman, Robinson and Carson before him, the West Ham goalkeeper won’t have to flee England and neither will he be deprived of a chance at redemption if he earns it. In fact, if fortunate, Green might retain his No. 1 jersey; just like Seaman, whose 2002 shocker instead earned him a chance to make an even more embarrassing one against Macedonia.

While fans in England treat their relationship with their idols like a marriage, loyalty is a currency that African football lovers never deal in. Where English fans embrace sticking by their heroes through thick and thin as a badge of honour, their African counterparts are always one mistake from turning applause into a lifetime chorus of sneers.

African fans have elastic memories and nurse grudges with the passion of a woman scorned. Here, football is an emotional, rather than rational, business.

The unpredictable behaviour of African fans might seem like intriguing cannon fodder for the aspiring psychologist, but the footballers know the score: success begets instant rewards and adoration, but the penalty for failure is just as swift and vicious.

This black and white reaction stems from the fact that African footballers are treated as deities, superhuman creatures sculpted in the image of God himself. The problem with that is, fans expect divine perfection in return, which makes being an African soccer pin-up quite the tightrope act.

When Green dropped his 40th-minute clanger in England’s World Cup opener, he was branded a ‘villain’ by the British press. However, that tag was, at best, figurative.

In Africa, the term will have a literal, real-life twist to it. That’s a fact of life all African footballers will arrive burdened by in South Africa.

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