West Africans Clash To Crown Nations' Champions

As the Africa Cup of Nations reaches fever pitch, allegations of unfair officiating are drowning out the trumpet-like vuvuzelas blasting in South Africa. Host Michel Martin speaks with Nigerian soccer journalist Osasu Obayiuwana for a look ahead to the final between Nigeria's Super Eagles and Burkina Faso's Stallions.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now let's head to South Africa. Soccer fans there have the vuvuzelas out in force again. Remember those loud - some might say obnoxious - noisemakers from the World Cup a few years back? Well, South Africa is hosting another big time soccer tournament right now. It is the Africa Cup of Nations. The event, which concludes this weekend, is filled with star players who've taken leave from their day jobs to represent their home countries at the Cup of Nations.

Osasu Obayiuwana is there as well. He is a soccer - or, as he says, football - journalist and associate editor of the New African magazine. We caught up with him in the middle of the action in Johannesburg, so that's the background noise you might be hearing.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

OSASU OBAYIUWANA: Yeah, hi. Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: How important is this tournament?

OBAYIUWANA: Well, I've been told that, in Africa, there are three religions - Christianity, Islam and football, so you draw your conclusions from that.

MARTIN: I see. I see, so point taken. I think many people remember, you know, World Cup and there were all these predictions about how it would proceed when it was held in South Africa. It turned out to be a terrific success, but I understand that the atmosphere there is not what had been hoped.

OBAYIUWANA: Well, but, you know, you have to compare like with like. South Africa barely had a year to prepare because they weren't the original host for the tournament. Libya were the host, but for political reasons and for the civil war in Libya, which the whole world is aware of, it was impractical for the tournament to be staged there.

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. But you're saying that the stadiums, for example, are not nearly full. Maybe 25 percent full. And why is that? Is it - why is that?

OBAYIUWANA: From where I'm standing, it's a combination of different things. I think, one, the ticketing for the tournament hasn't been the best. Another big problem is that it's expensive to travel in Africa, and as much as people would like football, you imagine somebody from Burkina Faso wanting to support his team at the Africa Cup of Nations. He has to fly about five, six thousand kilometers down to South Africa. He would have to stay in a hotel. All these things cost money. It's quite expensive.

I mean, it would be good if people around the continent had more economic wherewithal to travel for football, which they love so much, but it's difficult for them to do that.

MARTIN: Just one more headline from the semifinal match between Ghana and Burkina Faso was played in what you told us was a very bad field and the referee was suspended for his performance. Can you tell us about that?

OBAYIUWANA: I certainly can. I think the referee for this game - to put it mildly, I think he was a total disgrace. I think he was a complete disservice to African football. I think justice was well and truly served by Burkina Faso winning this game because I think the referee, short of putting the ball in the net for Ghana, did everything possible for Burkina Faso not to win this game and that's very upsetting because the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations - it's a big game. It's supposed to be a big advertisement for the African game and you expect better quality of officiating.

MARTIN: But, you know, we've been hearing about this match fixing scandal in Europe. Police say that hundreds of games across the world might have been influenced by gamblers. Is there any fear or has there been any indication that what happened at this semifinal match is somehow related to that or do you think it's just incompetence?

OBAYIUWANA: I wish I had the powers of clairvoyance and then I would be able to give you an accurate answer, but I don't want to say that the match was fixed because obviously I don't have proof, but one has to say that the calls of the referee leave those accusations - they leave them out in the field, and people would not be unfair if they examined those as possible reasons for what happened.

MARTIN: And so Burkina Faso is playing Nigeria for the final this weekend and that's - now, you know, forgive me, but that seems like a bit of a mismatch, doesn't it? I mean...

OBAYIUWANA: On paper, you would think it's a mismatch, but I've seen this Burkina Faso team and they have very good players. They're working together as a team. I mean, they've never reached the finals of the African Cup of Nations before. In fact, they haven't reached the last four in the tournament since 1998, when they hosted it. So I mean getting to the finals is a tremendous achievement for them, and you would think that playing against Nigeria, they don't have much of a chance, but if Nigeria disrespects them on Sunday, they will pay for it dearly, I think.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for bringing us up-to-date.

OBAYIUWANA: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: Osasu Obayiuwana is a soccer journalist and associate editor of the New African magazine, and he was with us from Johannesburg.

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