Total Pageviews

Monday, October 31, 2011


The landlocked West African country of Niger currently has more than its fair share of problems. The country, the 21st-largest in the world and one with a population of over 15 million people, has been struggling with the twin evils of drought and famine for most of the 21st Century so far (and for far longer); it is currently suffering from yet another drought and conditions are getting ever more desperate. Niger is also one of the most impoverished places on the planet. According to the International Monetary Fund's list of the poorest countries in the world in 2010, which was published in Global Finance magazine earlier this year, Niger was the sixth poorest country in the world with a per capita GDP of just US$733.

However, in the midst of all the misery sufered by the locals, there has been at least one good news story to emerge from Niger recently: the country's men's national football team qualified for the final stages of the African Cup of Nations for the first time earlier this month in bizarre circumstances. The manner in which the team, whose nickname is the Menas (named after the Hausa word for the Dama Gazelle), eventually reached the finals mirrored the rest of their qualifying campaign; it is a story of goals, goats and glory.

They did it the hard way, too, coming top of Group G, which also featured the defending champions - and red-hot favourites to qualify - Egypt, South Africa and Sierra Leone; the Nigériens were expected to finish bottom of the pile. They kicked off their campaign in Nelspruit, South Africa, in a none-too-auspicious fashion by losing 2:0, as most pundits had expected beforehand. Their next game was played in Niger's capital, Niamey, on 10/10/10, and is now quite possibly regarded as the most noteworthy result in the country's footballing history. 

The Menas faced Egypt at the Stade Général Seyni Kountché and were expected to lose to the holders of the African Cup of Nations. The Egyptians landed in Niamey a few days before the match after a 13-hour journey from Cairo to Niamey which involved a stop in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. According to a report in Almasry Alyoum, the plane landed in Niamey in the middle of a thunderstorm. The story goes that when the players disembarked, they were met by local fans, which included several "sorcerers who performed magical rituals - some involving live goats." Apparently, these witch-doctors - or "magicians" as they were also described in the article - then proceded "to spray the Egyptian footballers with mysterious potions."

This went on until the Egyptian team reached the sanctuary of the team bus, but not before goalkeeper and captain Essam El-Hadari had a run-in with "one of the more aggressive medicine men." The article ended with the following: "In an effort to ward off the effects of maleficent magic, prominent Egyptian footballer Mohamed Abu Treika cited verses from the Quran, while teammate Amr Zaki punched one of the sorcerers in the face." When all was said and done, the Pharaohs probably would have preferred to have been greeted at Niamey airport by one man and his dog..

The valiant attempts of the Egyptian players at the airport to ward off the machinations of a higher power seemed to have been in vain, judging by their display at the stadium. Ouwo Moussa Maazou ensured that he would be the talk of the town after scoring Niger's and the game's only goal in the 34th minute, ensuring a veritably famous victory (as opposed to a Jonathan Pearce-style famous victory) for the hosts, and huge celebrations followed on the streets of Niamey.

The qualification process resumed in March this year, and there was more joy for the Nigérien supporters to come when the Menas recorded another victory on home soil, this time courtesy of a 3:1 win against Sierra Leone, but not before the visitors had taken the lead halfway through the first half. Alhassane Issoufou restored parity just after the hour mark, and with 10 minutes left, Issa Modibo Sidibé put Niger in front. Kamilou Daouda wrapped up proceedings with the third and winning goal for the hosts in the last minute of normal time.

However, the Leone Stars were to gain revenge in the return match in Freetown at the beginning of June with a 1:0 win, a result which put Sierra Leone back in contention. There was another reason for the Nigerien fans to hit the streets and a shot in the arm for football in Niger following another surprise home win, this time against South Africa. Koffi Dan Kowa and Maazou put Niger two-up before South Africa pulled a goal back with 20 minutes left.

Time, then, to go to the last round of matches. To the consternation of many, not least in North Africa, Egypt found themselves firmly at the bottom of the group and out of the running for a place at the finals, with just 2 points from their first five matches. Niger were top of the group with nine points, with both South Africa and Sierra Leone a point adrift. Niger's last game was scheduled for 8/10/11, away to Egypt in Cairo, while it was potentially a "winner takes all" scenario in Nelspruit, with South Africa taking on Sierra Leone. If Niger failed to win in Egypt and South Africa or Sierra Leone were to take all three points, then one of the latter two sides would qualify for the African Cup of Nations. If Niger were to complete an unlikely double against the Pharaohs, then they would qualify for the final stages of the competition for the first time, regardless of what happened in South Africa.

And they did indeed qualify, but not quite according to the above scenario and with a quite bizarre twist. Despite Niger dominating the first half, Egypt, fielding their Olympic team in a virtually deserted Cairo International stadium, ran out 3:0 winners, recording their only win in a disastrous attempt at qualification. The Pharaohs finished bottom of the pile with just five points, an ignominious position for the defending champions, who last failed to qualify for the final stages of the African Cup of Nations in 1978 and who have won the competition seven times in all. Niger's players thought they had blown their chance, but South Africa and Sierra Leone played out a scoreless draw at the other end of the African continent. Towards the end of the game, the South African goalkeeper, Itumeleng Khume, fell to the ground poleaxed and received treatment for some seven minutes, but was soon up on his feet and leaping about as if nothing had happened.

The result eliminated a gallant Sierra Leone side, who had lost but one of their group games, the same total as South Africa, who thought they had qualified. The Bafana Bafana squad went on a lap of honour in Nelspruit, thinking that they had qualified on goal difference.  Khume was not the only one leaping about at this stage; he and his team-mates were performing a celebratory dance along the length of the stadium, and the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) commentators and studio pundits were in ecstasy. All that was quickly about to change.

It rapidly transpired that the South Africans had seemingly neglected to read the CAF rule-book before the game, with the national team's manager Pitso Mosimane claiming before kick-off that a draw would be good enough to qualify. Nobody at the SABC bothered to check the rule-book either, it would appear. Within 20 minutes of the end of the game, the BBC had contacted the CAF who confirmed that Niger would qualify instead of South Africa. While the Bafana Bafana support were digesting the news that their team hadn't qualified after all, the Nigerien players knew the rules beforehand and they, their manager Harouna Doula Gabdé and his staff, and their compatriots back home, were all already celebrating qualification. 

Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone were all tied on 9 points apiece, so results of the matches played between all three teams would now come into play. The Menas had beaten both South Africa and Sierra Leone, which left them on a total points total of 6 from the games that the trio had played against each other; the South Africans and the Leone Stars, on the other hand, had both beaten the Nigeriens, but had drawn both matches played against each other, which left both teams having won 5 points. Niger, despite having a goal difference of zero and having lost all three of their away games in the group, thus qualified for the African Cup of Nations for the very first time.

Just in case anybody is still in any doubt, the following appears in the CAF African Cup of Nations rule-book (or, to give the document its proper title, the Regulations of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations Gabon-Guinea Equatorial 2012) under Chapter 7 (Preliminary Phase), Article 14:

"In case of equality of points between two or more teams, after all the group matches, the ranking of the teams shall be established according to the following criteria:

14.1 Greater number of points obtained in the matches between the concerned teams;
14.2. Best goal difference in the matches between the concerned teams;
14.3. Greater number of goals scored in the group matches between the concerned teams;
14.4. Greater number of away goals scored in the direct matches between the concerned teams;
14.5. Goal difference in all the group matches;
14.6. Greatest number of goals scored in all the group matches;
14.7. A drawing of lots by the Organising Committee of CAF."

In short, Niger qualified after sub-section 14.1 was taken into consideration. The South African Football Federation would do well to learn a lesson from what one could only describe as a débacle: always read the small-print..

So, Niger have created their own little piece of football history, and all credit to them for doing so, but what are their chances of progress at the African Cup of Nations, which are due to be co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon early next year? In the draw for the final stages, which was made on Saturday past, the Menas were drawn alongside Gabon, Morocco and Tunisia in Group B, and, to be frank, their chances do not look good, judging by the quality of the sides they will be up against. A point against Gabon may well be as good as Niger will achieve; they do not travel well, as can be judged by the three away defeats (without scoring themselves) during the African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. Add to that a 3:0 defeat in February against Morocco in Marrakech and the outlook is bleak.

There are no household names in the squad; several of the Niger squad play in the national league, most of the rest play in other African countries and only a few of that number play in Europe. Olivier Bonnes plays for LOSC Lille's reseve team, Délis Ahou is a squad member of La Vitréenne in the Breton CFA division, William Ngounou played in the season just ended in the Swedish First Division South for IF Limhamn Bunkerflo, while Ouwo Moussa Maazou, currently playing in Belgium for SV Zulte Waregem, is the only Nigerien playing in a top division in Europe. Mohamed Abdoulaye is on the playing-staff of DRC Congo's finest, TP Mazembe. Four of the Menas play for Cotonsport Garoua in Cameroon: goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda, defenders Lassina Abdoul Karim and Amadou Kader, and midfielder Idrissa Saidou.

Domestically-speaking, the national association the Fédération Nigerienne de Football (FENIFOOT) was founded as recently as 1967, and joined both the CAF and FIFA the same year. The national league championship, also known as Ligue 1 Orange or Championnat D1, was first contested in 1966 by Secteur 6 Niamey (now known as Olympic FC), whilst the club with the most league titles under their belt is Sahel SC (formerly known as Secteur 7); they have won 13 in all. AS GNN, the team representing the local gendarmerie, are the current league champions, having won this year's edition with 9 points to spare from runners-up Dankassawa. Sixteen clubs competed in last season's Ligue 1 Orange.

Sahel SC are the cup kings in Niger; they have lifted the trophy on 10 occasions, including this year's edition when they defeated Jangorzo de Maradi 1:0 in the cup final. The national championship has frequently been blighted by financial troubles - for instance, the competition was cancelled in 2002, and the programme was severely curtailed in 2004 and 2005, the latter was also due to the famine which was affecting the country at the time.

Secteur 6 were the first Nigerien club to take part in the African Cup of Champion Clubs, when they took on - and lost 5:4 on aggregate against - Libya's Al-Ittihad in the preliminary round, while Sahel SC were Niger's first representatives in the African Cup Winners' Cup (known since 2004 as the CAF Confederations Cup after it merged with the CAF Cup, Africa's equivalent of the old UEFA Cup - now where have we heard that story before? Europe, perchance?) when they lost 3:2 on aggregate in the preliminary round of the inaugural edition in 1975 to Togo side Ifodjé Atakpamé. The country's club sides have rarely got past the preliminary round in any competition, when they have been able to compete.

Niger's triumph may well have been in reaching the final stages of the African Cup of Nations, and it would be a shame if the Menas were to return home from the finals with their tails between their legs, and then for football in the country to go on a downward spiral after a false dawn. It would mirror the only appearance in the finals by Mauritius in 1974, when they lost all three matches, and they haven't come anywhere qualifying since. When all else has gone from Niger's Pandora's Box, including help from the local witch-doctors and their goats, only hope is left; that may well be all they have to go on, but one never knows.

The team might just spring a surprise, and that would be most welcome for the beleaguered inhabitants of the West African nation, who have suffered a lot down the years. They deserve that even more than the players. The national side's presence at African football's top table could even be a springboard to a revamping and a more professional outlook among those connected with football in Niger; January, and, who knows, February, will tell a tale. For now, though, it's a good news story for the Nigériens, and that in itself is long, long overdue.


  1. interesting post dear blogger

  2. Many thanks for your input, Anonymous; please use your name next time as there is no need for secrecy - opinions and ideas for articles (for example) are always more than welcome, by the way!