Egypt won a record seventh – and third consecutive – African Nations Cup, but the tournament never overcame its nightmare start.
Egypt provided the fairy-tale finish to an African Nations Cup that had a nightmare start and will, ultimately, go down as a completely forgettable event.
The death of two members of the Togo delegation, plus the bus driver, in an attack in the disputed Cabinda region threw the tournament into turmoil before it had even kicked off, and the vagaries of competing in a country blessed with oil riches but scant people-resources seemed to take a toll on the playing standards.
Memorable matches were few and far between as the top teams tumbled, causing much anxiety for Africa as it hopes for some achievement at the 2010 World Cup in June.
Egypt did their best to provide the entertainment, scoring just five minutes from the end of the Final against a game Ghana to win the trophy, and made themselves the undisputed golden generation of Arab football – and arguably the best side seen in African Nations Cup history. The irony of their triumph just months after World Cup qualifying failure did not go unnoticed.
For the first time since Nigeria withdrew in a diplomatic spat with Nelson Mandela in 1996, the tournament started with only 15 teams.
Togo understandably flew home some 48 hours after their arrival in Cabinda was met with a deadly volley of gun fire.
They had crossed the border from Congo into the Cabinda enclave – the site several years ago of a low key guerilla insurgency, but whose separatist activity was long thought to have been quelled.
Assistant coach Amelete Abalo and press officer Stanislas Ocloo were killed in a sustained gun attack, while reserve goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale was seriously wounded and airlifted to South Africa for surgery.
CAF and the Angolan hosts reacted with great insensitivity straight afterwards, immediately seeking to deflect blame by suggesting Togo set themselves up for trouble by entering Angola by bus rather than plane, even though their pre-tournament training camp had been held just up the road in Pointe-Noire.
This refusal to accept responsibility continued throughout the tournament when its director, and the Angolan FA head, Justino Fernandes told a press conference that Togo had not informed organisers of the time and date of their arrival. But he could not answer a follow-up question of why, if that was indeed the case, such a large military convoy had been there to meet them and escort them into the town.
It was the convoy that attracted the attention of the terrorists – the cause of Cabinda independence winning a worldwide audience, but little sympathy with such a brazen act of violence.
It was a devastating blow for the host nation that was exceedingly poorly handled and then exacerbated at the end of the tournament when CAF banned Togo from the next two editions.
Rules do state that if a team pulls out of the final tournament 20 days or less before kick-off, they cannot compete in the next two qualifying campaigns.
But to take such a cold view of the terror and tragedy that befell the Togo team has earned CAF president Issa Hayatou widespread condemnation, including editorials in both L’Equipe and Kicker.
Hayatou did make a massive effort the day after the attack to get Togo to stay and becalm the other sides in Cabinda – Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana. But Togo’s government insisted the side return home, and quite rightly so.
Sepp Blatter was in Luanda at the end of the tournament and also privy to the CAF executive committee’s decision and must also be questioned why he did nothing to forestall a heavy handed attitude and a public relations disaster.
The African Nations Cup in Angola was supposed to be a coming-out party for a country previously mired in brutal conflict and with horrific colonial history. It is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies, on the back of massive oil production, but still largely corrupt, mired in mindless bureaucracy and with appalling infrastructure.
Investing an estimated US$1billion in hosting the African Nations Cup was not only an expensive PR exercise but also the chance to hurry up infrastructure projects, notably roads and hotels.
Four new stadiums, built by Chinese firms, went up in record time and were impressive.
But Angola’s mirror to the world was splattered with blood before they had even had the chance to show off their progress and the whole handling of the Togo tragedy will forever taint recollection of their tournament.
Part Two tomorrow