Category: Sport

Commonwealth Games – Kenyan cyclists dream big

From delivering milk in the hills of Kenya to racing through the streets of Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games, it is fair to say life is about to change drastically for John Njoroge, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko.

Between them the three Kenyans will compete in the 2014 Commonwealth Games time trial on Thursday July 31, and in the road race on Sunday August 3. They will come up against competitors from strong cycling nations, such as England, Australia and South Africa, but they are not without hope or a chance.

Njoroge, Kangangi and Ajiko are from Iten, a small town on the Kenya-Uganda border that is notable for being home to many of the world’s finest long-distance runners. The hope of this trio is that it be known for its cyclists, too, with the Commonwealth Games offering the perfect showcase opportunity.

Members of the Kenyan Riders club, from left Samwel Ekiru, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko. ‘The world has to watch out,’ says their coach Simon Blake. (Pic: Nicolas Leong)
Members of the Kenyan Riders club, from left Samwel Ekiru, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko. ‘The world has to watch out,’ says their coach Simon Blake. (Pic: Nicolas Leong)

Kenya is where Froome was raised and first put foot to pedal on his way to becoming the 2013 Tour de France winner and one of the finest cyclists in the world, yet traditionally the country has lacked a base of top-level riders. However, success has been building. A Kenyan team finished 13th out of 9 000 teams in the 2011 l’Étape du Tour, an event that allows amateur cyclists to race the Tour de France route, and fourth in the following year’s Tour of Rwanda, Africa’s biggest cycling event.

Central to the story has been Nick Leong, a former Singaporean photographer who moved to Iten and formed the 11-strong Kenyan Riders, the country’s first professional cycling team. “Cycling is ready for a change,” Leong says. “It is important to have diversity in the sport and an African team definitely helps open it to an even larger demographic.”

Given that Iten has an altitude of 2.4km, it is no major surprise that the Kenyan Riders’ speciality is climbing. Njoroge, who at 1.65m is the shortest of the trio, works as a milk deliveryman in the highlands of Naivasha, transporting up to 60kg a day on his bicycle over long, gruelling distances. “I was working very hard,” he says. “My body was used to the heavy weight and I liked to ride at high speeds. When I heard about the Kenyan Riders team, I trained as much as I could to ensure that I could join. Cycling for Kenya is my dream.”

In 2012 Njoroge finished fourth in the Haute Route, a seven-day race in the French Alps which covers over 19.8 vertical kilometers, and is arguably the toughest cycling competition in the world. During that year’s Tour of Rwanda he also finished third, only two minutes behind South African professionals.

Like Njoroge, Kangangi has a milk-delivery background, yet this is a man who has always had a desire to improve his life; he taught himself to read, write and speak English after being taken out of school by his impoverished mother. Now Kangangi is determined to show the world his cycling abilities and, with it, the broader sporting capabilities of his home nation.

“I am proud to be cycling in Europe as a Kenyan and I want to show the world what Africans can do,” says Kangangi, who is co-captain of the Kenyan Riders, alongside Samwel Mangi. “The race course is seriously tough but I am determined to give everything. If we do a really good job, this can help us get more sponsorship and support.”

According to Kenyan Riders coach Simon Blake, this something that is essential if the sport is to grow across the country. “Bicycles are part of the Kenyan culture but so far they are used only as a utility tool,” he says. “There is no established racing scene in Kenya and racing there is at such a low level compared to where we want to be in the future. We have to go abroad for practice but unfortunately that costs heaps of money.”

In preparing for the Commonwealth Games the team have had to work without a mechanic. The riders, therefore, have had to largely look after themselves, which has included taking delivery of their time-trial bikes, which only arrived in Glasgow this week.

Yet Njoroge, Kangangi and Ajiko feel sure they can make an impact. “The world has to watch out,” Blake says. “In five to 10 years it will be Africans dominating the big tours.”

Ghanaian soccer fans seek asylum in Brazil

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (L) takes a free kick during the World Cup Group G soccer match against Ghana. (Pic: Reuters)
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (L) takes a free kick during the World Cup Group G soccer match against Ghana. (Pic: Reuters)

Around 200 Ghanaians have requested asylum after travelling to Brazil to watch the World Cup, with officials expecting hundreds more to do so once the tournament ends.

Fans who travelled to see the Black Stars said they were Muslims “fleeing the violent conflicts between different Muslim groups”, police chief Noerci da Silva Melo told the news agency Agencia Brasil. Ghana, one of Africa’s most peaceful countries, has no recorded conflict among a population that is about two-thirds Christian.

Many of the asylum-seekers have taken shelter in a local Catholic seminary, which is helping them prepare official documents.

But dozens arriving daily in Brazil’s affluent southern states of Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul – all several hundred miles south of the venues where the Ghanaian team played – had hoped to find work, Da Silva Melo said.

“This region, Serra Gaucha, is known as an area of full employment. It has became a magnet for foreign workers,” he said. “You go through the streets and you can see many Haitians and Senegalese selling pirated CDs and watches. The area is overcrowded now.”

The majority of the arrivals said they were victims of an illegal ring who had demanded payment after luring them with false promises of work, said police investigator Vinícius Possamai Della.

“The majority of them arrived with only the clothes on their backs and no money. Some of them have taken to sleeping in the city’s bus park,” the journalist Flavio Ilha of O Globo newspaper said.

A Catholic seminary, the Centro de Atendimento ao Migrante, has been receiving food and clothes donations after taking in 219 Ghanaians, two of them women, the centre’s director said.

The asylum-seekers “faced life-threatening situations back home. They feel they can find work and better living conditions in Brazil,” the centre’s director Vanessa Perini Moojen told the Associated Press.

‘No religious conflict’
But Ghanaian authorities say the country has no religious conflict. “The basis for this alleged request is completely false as no religious conflict is taking place in Ghana,” deputy information minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu said. “Ghana’s mission in Brazil has been instructed to liaise with the Brazilian authorities to investigate the matter.”

The Brazilian justice ministry will decide whether to grant their requests and in the meantime, they are allowed to work and circulate in the country.

An official delegation of 650 fans went to Brazil to support the Black Stars, but police said they are expecting a further 1 000 Ghanaians to request refugee status in the next week.

Ghana’s foray into the Cup was beset by off-pitch woes. President John Dramani Mahama was forced to fly a plane with $3-million in cash to Brasilia after players threatened to boycott a match against Portugal. Defender John Boye, who later scored an own goal in a game the team lost 2–1, was captured on television kissing wads of cash delivered under armed guard to the players’ hotel.

Following a failure to make it past the group stages, the team is now under investigation after allegations of match-fixing.

In past international sporting events, athletes from the continent have sometimes disappeared in their host country. During London’s 2012 Olympics, seven Cameroonian athletes went missing, as did an Ethiopian torchbearer.

“You cannot blame them at all. No matter how much they decry it, a lot of our African officials would do the same thing given the first opportunity,” Ghanaian Martin Asamoah said from the capital, Accra.

Monica Mark for the Guardian

Amid chaos, African teams make history at the World Cup

Stephen Keshi had just finished repelling yet another query about the Nigeria player bonus payment issue when he wiped his brow, leaned forward and posed a rhetorical question.

“Can I ask if you work with the CIA?” the Nigeria coach said, sparking muffled laughter all around.

When it comes to African teams at the World Cup, the focus on football has sometimes taken a back seat to other distractions in Brazil.

Strike threats. Pay disputes. Bomb blasts back home. Presidential interventions. That’s on top of several unsavoury incidents on the field, with a Cameroon player head-butting his teammate and high-profile Ghana players getting suspended for physical and verbal attacks in training.

Yet somehow, through the turmoil, it has been the best World Cup for African teams in a way: for the first time, more than one of the continent’s representatives advanced to the knockout stage.

And if Nigeria and Algeria win their round-of-16 matches on Monday, they would play each other to guarantee Africa’s first semifinalist on football’s biggest stage.

“I hope Nigeria and Algeria can continue to make Africa proud,” Keshi said. “That would be a great World Cup.”

The Nigerian team sing their national anthem before taking on Iran in a Group F match on June 16. (Pic: AFP)
The Nigerian team sing their national anthem before taking on Iran in a Group F match on June 16. (Pic: AFP)

Many have reacted with a shrug to the off-pitch shenanigans that have blighted African teams’ World Cup campaigns. Just ask France coach Didier Deschamps, who is preparing his team to take on Nigeria in Brasilia.

“For them, I don’t think it is a very unusual situation,” he said. “I’m not saying it is part of the culture, but it has happened before this World Cup.”

Player disgruntlement over unpaid bonuses has followed the African teams around Brazil. Ghana’s president had to fly reportedly millions in cash to Brazil to ensure the team didn’t boycott a pivotal group game against Portugal.

Cameroon refused to travel to the tournament until a dispute over appearance fees was resolved. Most recently, Nigeria players’ concerns over bonus payments contributed to a training session being cancelled on Thursday and the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, having to intervene from long distance.

Hence the barrage of questions to Keshi on Sunday.

“There was not a major issue about the monetary aspect of it,” Keshi said. “It was just something we wanted to highlight.”

Nigeria is thriving on the pitch, despite tragedy back home. A day after its first group game, a bomb blast at a World Cup viewing site in Damaturu, northeast Nigeria, and killed 14 people. Last week, a bomb went off at a shopping mall in Abuja, the capital in central Nigeria, killing 24 people.

“It’s been quite a tragedy, but we are here – we have a job to do,” Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel said. “Things that happen back home, we shouldn’t let it affect us. Football unites everyone back in Nigeria.”

For Ghana, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire, the misery has been confined to the field of play.

The Ivorians were seen as Africa’s top hope but they again failed on the big stage, tumbling out after conceding an injury-time penalty that was converted by Greece in their final Group C match. It was seen as the last chance for the so-called “golden generation” of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and Didier Zokora at the highest level. The failure led to coach Sabri Lamouchi stepping down.

“There will no renewal,” Lamouchi said. “The reasons why are obvious.”

The presidents of Cameroon and Ghana have called for investigations following disappointing World Cup performances.

State media said Cameroon President Paul Biya has given his prime minister one month to submit a report on the Indomitable Lions’ “inglorious campaign,” with a statement from his office urging “a profound and deep restructuring of Cameroonian football.”

Cameroon lost all three games, scored just one goal and was shamed when defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto thrust his head into the face of teammate Benjamin Moukandjo against Croatia.

Since reaching the quarterfinals in 1990, Cameroon has won just one of 15 games at the World Cup.

Ghana’s campaign ended in disgrace, too, with Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng thrown out of the squad on the morning of the match against Portugal for disciplinary reasons.

A 2-1 loss in that game meant Ghana failed to advance to the knockout rounds for the first time in three World Cups. It wasn’t long before Ghana President John Mahama also ordered an investigation, as well as replacing both the country’s sports minister and his deputy.

Nigeria, which takes on France in Brasilia, and Algeria, which takes on Germany in Porto Alegre, are flying the flag not just for their own countries but for a whole continent on Monday. – Steve Douglas for Sapa-AP

Ghana airlifts $3m to Black Stars to end protest

Ghana's players warm up during a training session. (Pic: AFP)
Ghana’s players warm up during a training session in Brasilia. (Pic: AFP)

The Ghana government on Wednesday airlifted more than three million dollars in cash to Brazil to stop protests by players ahead of their crunch game against Portugal.

Speaking after a player meeting Wednesday, midfielder Christian Atsu said there was no question of any fallout from the financial dispute on Thursday’s game which Ghana must win to maintain any chance of qualifying for the second round.

The team ended their protests after President John Dramani Mahama personally assured them that he would send a chartered plane with the promised amount, more than $3 million, Atsu said.

“We love our country and we will play,” said Atsu, who with team-mates boycotted Monday’s training session.

Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah, whose side must beat Portugal and hope either the United States or Germany inflict a heavy defeat on the other so they go through on goal difference, said he was relieved the government had intervened.

“The president has intervened. That is a good thing, the government took matters in hand,” Appiah told a pre-match press conference.

“The money should arrive in a few hours as the plane took off some time ago,” he added.

Because of the bonus row, the team only arrived in Brasilia late on Wednesday and missed training.

Appiah, who has been coach since 2012, explained the bonuses should have been paid before the finals where the Black Stars had been hoping to repeat their 2010 exploit in reaching the quarter-finals.

“Our habit is to pay the players in cash because not all the players have bank accounts in Ghana.

“I am not saying that is the best way to do things but one has to understand in Africa things are done differently to Europe,” said Appiah.

“FIFA pays the federations only when they arrive. The players have to wait to be paid and the country must find the money before they arrive and that is where the problem lies.”

However, Appiah said he sympathised with the players. “From the moment one agrees the size of the bonus it is important the players receive it.”

Bonuses also caused a furore in the Cameroon camp with the players delaying their flight to Brazil until cash promises were made.

Fifa probes blackface fan photos at World Cup

Fifa is investigating a possible racial discrimination case after photographs circulated of fans with blackface makeup at Germany’s match against Ghana.

Images posted on social media networks showed two men, appearing to be Germany fans, with blackened faces in the Fortaleza stadium on Saturday.

A spectator at the Germany-Ghana World Cup match on June 21. (Pic: AFP)
A spectator at the Germany-Ghana World Cup match on June 21. (Pic: Reuters)

Fifa said on Sunday that its disciplinary committee is considering opening a case. It will also consider a report by the Fifa match commissioner, Eggert Magnusson of Iceland.

“We do not respect any discriminatory messages,” spokesperson Delia Fischer said.

Fifa holds national football federations responsible for their fans’ behavior inside stadiums.

In a second incident, a man ran onto the pitch in the second half of the 2-2 draw.

The shirtless fan had an email address and telephone number written on his back. He was ushered away by Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari before being detained by stewards.

Brazil’s organising committee spokesperson Saint-Clair Milesi said the man was reportedly from Poland.

“He came running, charged and jumped over the stewards,” Milesi said. “Such behavior is totally unacceptable. He was taken to the local authorities for the proper measures.” – Sapa-AP